Sunday, August 1, 2021

Interpassive Movie Activism

Slavoj Zizek, "Hollywood’s vacuous moral turn: Black Widow, Luca and Nomadland are films for decaffeinated protesters"
On today's market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol… The list goes on: virtual sex as sex without sex, the art of expert administration as politics without politics, up to today's tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of 'Other' deprived of its disturbing Otherness.

We should add to this series another key figure from our cultural space: a decaffeinated protester, a protester who says all the right things, but somehow deprives them of their critical edge. He is horrified by global warming, he fights sexism and racism, he demands a radical social change — and everyone is invited to join in, to participate in the big sentiment of global solidarity, which means: you are not required to change your life (maybe just give to charity here and there), you go on with your career, you are ruthlessly competitive, but you are on the right side…

Should we then be really surprised to find the same decaffeinated critical stance in recent Hollywood films? There are many falsely-progressive movies which are for 'the right cause' (openness to immigrants, the predicament of the nomadic working class, feminine solidarity), but they deal with their topic in a way which neutralizes its critical edge. Let's take three: Black Widow, Luca and Nomadland.

Black Widow is best characterized as part of a meta-genre: Marvel superheroes meet Bourne or Bond…but a more pertinent characterization is that of a Marvel movie made in the conditions of the #MeToo wave. How is this feminization inscribed into the texture of the film? Black Widow is directed by a woman (Cate Shortland) — we can speculate that this fact accounts for some of the film's features, some of which are more pertinent than the blatant #MeToo motifs. The emotional focus of the film is the relationship between Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh), a sisterly pair engaged in a complex...

Rest behind paywalls 

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Elites 'R Us

Slavoj Zizek, "The ‘remedies’ that Gates & Soros use to try to offset evils they’ve caused don’t cure the disease, but prolong it"
The routine of these billionaires is nothing but a lie: speculative exploitation followed by vacuous humanitarian concerns about the catastrophic consequences that their ruthless capitalism is responsible for in the first place.

Every authentic Leftist should put on the wall above his bed or table the opening paragraph of Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism, where he points out that, “It is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.”

People find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. Accordingly, with admirable –though misdirected– intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their ‘remedies’ do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it.

Indeed, these remedies are part of the disease. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.

This last sentence provides a concise formula of what is wrong with Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation. It is not enough just to point out that the Gates charity is based on brutal business practice – one should take a step further and also denounce the ideological foundation of the Gates charity, the vacuity of its pan-humanitarianism.

The title of Sama Naami’s band of essays ‘Refusal of respect: Why we should not respect foreign cultures. And our own also not,’ hits the nail on its head: it is the only authentic stance with regard to the other three variations of the same formula. Gates’ charity implies the formula: respect all cultures, your own and others. The Rightist nationalist formula is: respect your own culture and despise others which are inferior to it. The Politically Correct formula is: respect other cultures, but despise your own which is racist and colonialist (that’s why Politically Correct woke culture is always anti-Eurocentric).

The correct Leftist stance is: bring out the hidden antagonisms of your own culture, link it to the antagonisms of other cultures, and then engage in a common struggle of those who fight here against the oppression and domination at work in our culture and those who do the same in other cultures.

What this means is something which may sound shocking, but one should insist on it: you don’t have to respect or love immigrants – what you have to do is to change the situation so that they will not have to be what they are. The citizen of a developed country who wants less immigrants and is ready to do something so that they will not have to come to this place which they mostly even don’t like, is much better than a humanitarian who preaches openness to immigrants, while silently participating in the economic and political practices which brought to ruin those countries where immigrants come from.

A couple of years ago, I found in a store in Los Angeles a chocolate laxative, a piece of chocolate with the paradoxical injunction on its wrap: “Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate!,” i.e., consume the very thing which causes constipation.

The structure of the “chocolate laxative,” of a product containing the agent of its own containment, can be discerned throughout today's ideological landscape. There are two topics which determine a liberal tolerant attitude towards others: the respect of otherness, openness towards it, AND the obsessive fear of harassment – in short, the other is OK insofar as its presence is not intrusive, insofar as the other is not really other…

In the strict homology with the paradoxical structure of chocolate laxative, tolerance of this coincides with its opposite: my duty to be tolerant towards the other effectively means that I should not get too close to him, not to intrude into his/her space – in short, that I should respect his/her INTOLERANCE towards my over-proximity.

This is what is emerging more and more as the central ‘human right’ in late-capitalist society: the right not to be “harassed,” to be kept at a safe distance from the others. A similar structure is clearly present in how we relate to capitalist profiteering: it is OK if it is counteracted with charitable activities – first you amass billions, then you return (part of) them to the needy.

And the same goes for war, for the emergent logic of humanitarian or pacifist militarism: war is OK insofar as it really serves to bring about peace, democracy, or to create conditions for distributing humanitarian help. And does the same not hold more and more even for democracy and human rights?: human rights are OK if they are ‘rethought’ to include torture and a permanent state of emergency, democracy is OK if it is cleansed of its populist “excesses” and limited to those “mature” enough to practice it…

This same ‘chocolate laxative’ structure is also what makes figures like Bill Gates or George Soros ethically so problematic: do they not stand for the most ruthless financial speculative exploitation, combined with its counter-agent, the humanitarian worry about the catastrophic social consequences of the unbridled market economy? Soros’ very daily routine is a lie embodied: half of his working time is devoted to financial speculations, and the other half to “humanitarian” activities (providing finances for cultural and democratic activities in post-Communist countries, writing essays and books) which ultimately fight the effects of his own speculations.

The crisis we are in is too serious to fight it with chocolate laxatives. We need just bitter laxatives – we are not (yet) in war, but we are maybe in something even more dangerous: we are not fighting an enemy, the only enemy is ourselves, the destructive consequences of capitalist productivity.

Recall that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba proclaimed a “Special Period in Time of Peace” (“periodo especial en tiempos de paz”): wartime conditions in a time of peace. Maybe this is the term we should use for our predicament today: we are entering a very special period in a time of peace.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Welcome to the New Economics...

Slavoj Zizek, "Is China’s communism just another name for authoritarian capitalism?

Capitalism is a passage from pre-modernity to socialism in a sense

On July 1, 1921, the founding congress of the Chinese Communist Party was held in Shanghai, when 12 men gathered in a villa in French Concession, the richest part of the city. Today, the Party has over 90 million members. Over the past century, it changed the history of China and the history of the entire world.

China in the last decades is arguably one of the greatest economic success stories in human history. It lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. How did China do it?

The 20th-century Left was defined by its opposition to capitalism and authoritarianism. China, however, is the combination of those two in their extreme forms. China today is a strong authoritarian state with wild capitalist dynamics and is perhaps the most efficient form of a socialist state. If someone in China tried to organize workers against the abuses of state power per Marxist ideology, they’d be arrested. In today’s China, one of the main functions of its Communist Party is to prevent workers from organizing their resistance against capitalism. 
Deng Xiaoping reportedly said on his deathbed that his greatest achievement was not economic opening but how he “resisted the temptation to go all the way and open up also the political life to multi-party democracy.”

We should resist the liberal temptation to assume how, if China were to liberalize politically, its economic progress would have been even faster. Recall the classical Marxist thesis on early modern England. It was in the bourgeoisie’s own interest to leave the political power to the aristocracy and keep for itself the economic power. The same thing is going on in China today. It was in the interest of the new capitalists to leave political power to the Party because it is the best protector of the interests of capitalists.

It may appear that, in the passage from the Cultural Revolution to Deng’s reforms, China has moved from one extreme to another. However, there is a structural similarity between the Maoist revolution and the inherent dynamic of capitalism. Mao himself created the ideological condition for rapid capitalist development by tearing apart the fabric of traditional society.

It is capitalism, again and again, that emerges as the only alternative, the only way to move forward and the dynamic force for change when social life gets stuck into some fixed form. Today, capitalism is much more revolutionary than the traditional Left obsessed with protecting the old achievements of the welfare state. Just consider how much capitalism has changed the entire texture of our societies in the past decades.

Lenin’s New Economic Policy from the early 1920s was the obvious model for Deng Xiaoping’s reforms which opened up the way for a capitalist free market under the control of the ruling Communist Party. But are we to make fun of this change as a loss for socialism? What if we defined this as a passage from feudalism to socialism?

With the abolishment of premodern relations of servitude and domination, with the assertion of personal freedom and human rights principles, capitalist modernity is in itself already socialist. It is not surprising that German peasants’ revolt in the 1500s and Jacobins demanded economic equality in this context.

Capitalism is a passage from pre-modernity to socialism in a sense. It accepts the end of direct relations of domination, but as Marx put it in his classic formulation, it transposes domination from the relations between people to the relations between things. As individuals, we are all free, but domination persists in the relationship between commodities that we exchange on the market.

The big question that haunts us is, of course, if market freedom can be abolished without abolishing political freedom. You indeed can abolish the latter while preserving market freedom as China did. But China just seems to be a new form of capitalism with an authoritarian twist that will replace liberal capitalism. Is China, then, the biggest threat to genuine democratic emancipation?

Monday, July 26, 2021

No Exit

Slavoj Žižek: "Last Exit to Socialism"
The latest data make it clear that, even after the (very uneven) spread of vaccination, we cannot afford to relax and return to the old normal.

Not only is the pandemic not over (infection numbers are rising again, new lockdowns are awaiting us), other catastrophes are on the horizon. At the end of June 2021, a heat dome — a weather phenomenon where a ridge of high pressure traps and compresses warm air, driving up temperatures and baking the region — over the Northwest of the United States and the Southwest of Canada caused temperatures to approach 50°C (122°F), so that Vancouver was hotter than the Middle East.

This weather pathology is just the climax of a much wider process: in the last years, northern Scandinavia and Siberia regularly see temperatures over 30°C (86°F). The World Meteorological Organization had a weather station in Siberia’s Verkhoyansk — north of the Arctic Circle — record a 38°C (100.4°F) day on June 20. The town of Oymyakon in Russia, considered to be the coldest inhabited place on Earth, was hotter (31.6°C [88.9°F]) than it has ever been in June. In short: “Climate change is frying the Northern Hemisphere.”

True, the heat dome is a local phenomenon, but it is the result of a global disturbance of patterns which clearly depend on human interventions into natural cycles. The catastrophic consequences of this heat wave for the life in the ocean are already palpable: “‘Heat dome’ probably killed 1bn marine animals on Canada coast,” experts say. “British Columbia scientist says heat essentially cooked mussels: ‘The shore doesn’t usually crunch when you walk.’”

While weather is generally getting hotter, this process reaches a climax in local extremes, and these local extremes will sooner or later coalesce in a series of global tipping points. The catastrophic floods in Germany and Belgium in July 2021 are another of these tipping points, and who knows what will follow. The catastrophe is not something that will begin in the near future, it is here, and it is also not in some distant African or Asian country but right here, in the heart of the developed West. To put it bluntly, we will have to get used to living with multiple simultaneous crises.

Not only is a heat wave at least partially conditioned by reckless industrial exploitation of nature, but its effects also depend on social organization. At the beginning of July 2021 in southern Iraq, temperatures swelled to over 50°C (122°F), and what occurred simultaneously was a total collapse of the electricity supply (no air conditioner, no refrigerator, no light), which made the place a living hell. This catastrophic impact was clearly caused by the enormous state corruption in Iraq, with billions in oil money disappearing to private pockets.
Is there a last exit from the road to our perdition or is it already too late, so that all we can do is find a way to painless suicide?
If we access this (and numerous other) data soberly, there is one simple conclusion to be drawn from them. For every living entity, collective or individual, the final exit is death (which is why Derek Humphry was right to entitle his 1992 pro–assisted suicide book Final Exit). The ecological crises which are exploding lately open up a realistic prospect of the final exit (collective suicide) of humanity itself. Is there a last exit from the road to our perdition or is it already too late, so that all we can do is find a way to painless suicide?

Our Place in the World

So what should we do in such a predicament? We should above all avoid the common wisdom according to which the lesson of the ecological crises is that we are part of nature, not its center, so we have to change our way of life — limit our individualism, develop new solidarity, and accept our modest place among life on our planet. Or, as Judith Butler put it, “An inhabitable world for humans depends on a flourishing earth that does not have humans at its center. We oppose environmental toxins not only so that we humans can live and breathe without fear of being poisoned, but also because the water and the air must have lives that are not centered on our own.”

But is it not that global warming and other ecological threats demand of us collective interventions into our environment which will be incredibly powerful, direct interventions into the fragile balance of forms of life? When we say that the rise of average temperature has to be kept below 2°C (35.6°F), we talk (and try to act) as general managers of life on Earth, not as a modest species. The regeneration of the earth obviously does not depend upon “our smaller and more mindful role” — it depends on our gigantic role, which is the truth beneath all the talk about our finitude and mortality.

If we have to care also about the life of water and air, it means precisely that we are what Marx called “universal beings,” as it were, able to step outside ourselves, stand on our own shoulders, and perceive ourselves as a minor moment of the natural totality. To escape into the comfortable modesty of our finitude and mortality is not an option; it is a false exit to a catastrophe. As universal beings, we should learn to accept our environment in all its complex mixture, which includes what we perceive as trash or pollution, as well as what we cannot directly perceive since it is too large or too minuscule (Timothy Morton’s “hyperobjects”). For Morton, being ecological
is not about spending time in a pristine nature preserve but about appreciating the weed working its way through a crack in the concrete, and then appreciating the concrete. It’s also part of the world, and part of us. . . .

. . . Reality, Morton writes, is populated with “strange strangers” — things that are “knowable yet uncanny.” This strange strangeness, Morton writes, is an irreducible part of every rock, tree, terrarium, plastic Statue of Liberty, quasar, black hole, or marmoset one might encounter; by acknowledging it, we shift away from trying to master objects and toward learning to respect them in their elusiveness. Whereas the Romantic poets rhapsodized about nature’s beauty and sublimity, Morton responds to its all-pervading weirdness; they include in the category of the natural everything that is scary, ugly, artificial, harmful, and disturbing.
Is this not a perfect example of such a mixture as the fate of rats in Manhattan during the pandemic? Manhattan is a living system of humans, cockroaches, . . . and millions of rats. Lockdown at the peak of the pandemic meant that, since all restaurants were closed, rats that lived off the trash from restaurants were deprived of the source of their food. This caused mass starvation: many rats were found eating their offspring. A closure of restaurants which changed the eating habits of humans but posed no threat to them was a catastrophe for rats, rats as comrades.

Another similar accident from recent history could be called “sparrow as comrade.” In 1958, at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese government declared that “birds are public animals of capitalism” and set in motion a large campaign to eliminate sparrows, suspected of consuming approximately four pounds of grain per sparrow per year. Sparrow nests were destroyed, eggs were broken, and chicks were killed; millions of people organized into groups, and hit noisy pots and pans to prevent sparrows from resting in their nests, with the goal of causing them to drop dead from exhaustion.
The regeneration of the earth obviously does not depend upon ‘our smaller and more mindful role’ — it depends on our gigantic role, which is the truth beneath all the talk about our finitude and mortality.
These mass attacks depleted the sparrow population, pushing it to near extinction. However, by April 1960, Chinese leaders were forced to realize that sparrows also ate a large number of insects in the fields, so, rather than being increased, rice yields after the campaign were substantially decreased: the extermination of sparrows upset the ecological balance, and insects destroyed crops as a result of the absence of natural predators. By this time, however, it was too late: with no sparrows to eat them, locust populations ballooned, swarming the country and compounding the ecological problems already caused by the Great Leap Forward, including widespread deforestation and misuse of poisons and pesticides. Ecological imbalance is credited with exacerbating the Great Chinese Famine in which millions died of starvation. The Chinese government eventually resorted to importing 250,000 sparrows from the Soviet Union to replenish their population.

So, again, what can and should we do in this unbearable situation — unbearable because we have to accept that we are one among the species on Earth, but we are at the same time burdened by the impossible task to act as universal managers of the life on Earth? Since we failed to take other, perhaps easier, exits (global temperatures are rising, oceans are more and more polluted . . .), it looks more and more that the last exit before the final one will be some version of what was once called “war communism.”

By Any Means Necessary

What I have in mind here is not any kind of rehabilitation of or continuity with the twentieth-century “really existing socialism,” even less the global adoption of the Chinese model, but a series of measures which are imposed by the situation itself. When (not just a country but) all of us are facing a threat to our survival, we enter a warlike emergency state which will last for decades at least. To simply guarantee the minimal conditions of our survival, mobilizing all our resources is inevitable to deal with unheard-of challenges, including displacements of dozens, maybe hundreds, of millions of people due to global warming.

The answer to the heat dome in the United States and Canada is not just to help the affected areas but to attack its global causes. And, as the ongoing catastrophe in southern Iraq makes clear, a state apparatus capable of maintaining a minimal welfare of the people in catastrophic conditions will be needed to prevent social explosions.

All these things can — hopefully — be achieved only through strong and obligatory international cooperation, social control and regulation of agriculture and industry, changes in our basic eating habits (less beef), global health care, etc. Upon a closer look, it is clear that representative political democracy alone will not be sufficient for this task. A much stronger executive power capable of enforcing long-term commitments will have to be combined with local self-organizations of people, as well as with a strong international body capable of overriding the will of dissenting nations.

I am not talking here about a new world government — such an entity would give opportunity to immense corruption. And I am not talking about communism in the sense of abolishing markets — market competition should play a role, although a role regulated and controlled by state and society. Why, then, use the term “communism”? Because what we will have to do contains four aspects of every truly radical regime.

First, there is voluntarism: changes that will be needed are not grounded in any historical necessity; they will be done against the spontaneous tendency of history — as Walter Benjamin put it, we have to pull the emergency brake on the train of history. Then, there is egalitarianism: global solidarity, health care, and a minimum of decent life for all. Then, there are elements of what cannot but appear to die-hard liberals as “terror,” a taste of which we got with measures to cope with the ongoing pandemic: limitation of many personal freedoms and new modes of control and regulation. Finally, there is trust in the people: everything will be lost without the active participation of ordinary people.

The Way Forward

All this is not a morbid dystopian vision but the result of the simple realistic assessment of our predicament. If we don’t take this path, what will happen is the totally crazy situation which is already taking place in the United States and Russia: the power elite is preparing for its survival in gigantic underground bunkers in which thousands can survive for months, with the excuse that the government should function even in such conditions. In short, government should continue to work even when there are no people alive on the earth over whom it should exert its authority.

Our governments and business elites are already preparing for this scenario, which means they know the alarm bell is ringing. Although the prospect of the mega-rich living somewhere in space outside of our Earth is not a realist one, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the attempts of some mega-rich individuals (Musk, Bezos, Branson) to organize private flights into space also express the fantasy to escape the catastrophe that threatens our survival on Earth. So what awaits us who have nowhere to escape?

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Is Using "Racism" as an Excuse for Black Poor Social Outcomes a Simplicity Bias?

"The Kenna Problem: Why asking people what they like is sometimes a bad idea"

Malcomb Gladwell, 
"Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" (2005) is Malcolm Gladwell's second book. It presents in popular science format research from psychology and behavioral economics on the adaptive unconscious: mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information. It considers both the strengths of the adaptive unconscious, for example in expert judgment, and its pitfalls, such as prejudice and stereotypes.

The author describes the main subject of his book as "thin-slicing": our ability to use limited information from a very narrow period of experience to come to a conclusion. This idea suggests that spontaneous decisions are often as good as—or even better than—carefully planned and considered ones. To reinforce his ideas, Gladwell draws from a wide range of examples from science and medicine (including malpractice suits), sales and advertising, gambling, speed dating (and predicting divorce), tennis, military war games, and movies and popular music. Gladwell also uses many examples of regular people's experiences with "thin-slicing," including our instinctive ability to mind-read, which is how we can get to know a person's emotions just by looking at his or her face.

Gladwell explains how an expert's ability to "thin slice" can be corrupted by their likes and dislikes, prejudices, and stereotypes (even unconscious ones). A particular form of unconscious bias Gladwell discusses is psychological priming. He also discusses the implicit-association test, designed to measure the strength of a person's subconscious associations/bias.

Gladwell also mentions that sometimes having too much information can interfere with the accuracy of a judgment, or a doctor's diagnosis. In what Gladwell contends is an age of information overload, he finds that experts often make better decisions with snap judgments than they do with volumes of analysis. This is commonly called "Analysis paralysis." The challenge is to sift through and focus on only the most critical information. The other information may be irrelevant and confusing. Collecting more information, in most cases, may reinforce our judgment but does not help make it more accurate. Gladwell explains that better judgments can be executed from simplicity and frugality of information. If the big picture is clear enough to decide, then decide from this without using a magnifying glass.

The book argues that intuitive judgment is developed by experience, training, and knowledge. For example, Gladwell claims that prejudice can operate at an intuitive unconscious level, even in individuals whose conscious attitudes are not prejudiced. One example is the halo effect, where a person having a salient positive quality is thought to be superior in other, unrelated respects. The example used in the book is Warren G. Harding. Henry Daugherty was impressed by Harding's appearance of respectability, and helped him become president of the United States of America, though Harding did nothing extraordinary for his political career.

Gladwell uses the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, where four New York policemen shot an innocent man on his doorstep 41 times, as another example of how rapid, intuitive judgment can have disastrous effects

...and so we're all now stuck with our "Hang in there baby" police/policing policies. Meanwhile the rhapsodes in the University "African-American Studies" Department keep the CRT hits a coming...

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Hew Many Foemen...

Lord among Earls,
Bracelet-bestower and
Baron of Barons,
He with his brother,
Edmund Atheling,
Gaining a lifelong
Glory in battle,
Slew with the sword-edge
There by Brunanburh,
Brake the shield-wall,
Hew’d the lindenwood,2
Hack’d the battleshield,
Sons of Edward with hammer’d brands.

II. Theirs was a greatness
Got from their Grandsires—
Theirs that so often in
Strife with their enemies
Struck for their hoards and their hearths and their homes.

III. Bow’d the spoiler,
Bent the Scotsman,
Fell the shipcrews
Doom’d to the death.
All the field with blood of the fighters
Flow’d, from when first the great
Sun-star of morningtide,
Lamp of the Lord God
Lord everlasting,
Glode over earth till the glorious creature
Sank to his setting.

IV. There lay many a man
Marr’d by the javelin,
Men of the Northland
Shot over shield.
There was the Scotsman
Weary of war.

V. We the West-Saxons,
Long as the daylight
Lasted, in companies
Troubled the track of the host that we hated,
Grimly with swords that were sharp from the grindstone,
Fiercely we hack’d at the flyers before us.

VI. Mighty the Mercian,
Hard was his hand-play,
Sparing not any of
Those that with Anlaf,
Warriors over the
Weltering waters
Borne in the bark’s-bosom,
Drew to this island:
Doom’d to the death.

VII.Five young kings put asleep by the sword-stroke,
Seven strong Earls of the army of Anlaf
Fell on the war-field, numberless numbers,
Shipmen and Scotsmen.

VIII. Then the Norse leader.
Dire was his need of it,
Few were his following,
Fled to his warship
Fleeted his vessel to sea with the king in it.
Saving his life on the fallow flood.

IX. Also the crafty one,
Crept to his North again,
Hoar-headed hero!

X. Slender warrant had
He to be proud of
The welcome of war-knives—
He that was reft of his
Folk and his friends that had
Fallen in conflict,
Leaving his son too
Lost in the carnage,
Mangled to morsels,
A youngster in war!

XI. Slender reason had
He to be glad of
The clash of the war-glaive—
Traitor and trickster
And spurner of treaties—
He nor had Anlaf
With armies so broken
A reason for bragging
That they had the better
In perils of battle
On places of slaughter—
The struggle of standards,
The rush of the javelins,
The crash of the charges,3
The wielding of weapons—
The play that they play’d with
The children of Edward.

XII. Then with their nail’d prows
Parted the Norsemen, a
Blood-redden’d relic of
Javelins over
The jarring breaker, the deep-sea billow,
Shaping their way toward Dyflen4 again,
Shamed in their souls.

XIII. Also the brethren,
King and Atheling,
Each in his glory,
Went to his own in his own West-Saxonland,
Glad of the war.

XIV.Many a carcase they left to be carrion,
Many a livid one, many a sallow-skin—
Left for the white-tail’d eagle to tear it, and
Left for the horny-nibb’d raven to rend it, and
Gave to the garbaging war-hawk to gorge it, and
That gray beast, the wolf of the weald.

XV. Never had huger
Slaughter of heroes
Slain by the sword-edge—
Such as old writers
Have writ of in histories—
Hapt in this isle, since
Up from the East hither
Saxon and Angle from
Over the broad billow
Broke into Britain with
Haughty war-workers who
Harried the Welshman, when
Earls that were lured by the
Hunger of glory gat
Hold of the land.

Tennyson, "Battle of Brunanburh" 

Friday, July 9, 2021

On the "Essences" of Post-Modern Linguistic Soups

"If identity becomes the problem of sexual existence, and if people think... that their own identity has to become the law, the principle, the code of their existence; if the perennial question they ask is "Does this thing conform to my identity?" then, I think, they will turn back to a kind of ethics very close to the old heterosexual virility." 

"...the relationships we have to have with ourselves are not ones of identity, rather, they must be relationships of differentiation, of creation, of innovation." 

- Michel Foucault
"I'm not at ease with "lesbian theories, gay theories," for as I've argued elsewhere, identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes" 

"Is it not a sign of despair over public politics when identity becomes its own policy, bringing with it those who would "police" it from various sides?" 

"And this is not a call to return to silence or invisibility, but, rather, to make use of a category that can be called into question, made to account for what it excludes"
 - Judith Butler
"The dangers of identity politics... are that it casts as authentic to the self or group an identity that in fact is defined by its opposition to an Other. Reclaiming such an identity as one's own merely reinforces its dependence on this dominant Other, and further internalizes and reinforces an oppressive hierarchy.

While the charge that identity politics promotes a victim mentality is often a facile pot-shot, Wendy Brown offers a more sophisticated caution against the dangers of ressentiment (the moralizing revenge of the powerless). She argues that identity politics has its own genealogy in liberal capitalism that relentlessly reinforces the "wounded attachments" it claims to sever."

- The Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy 

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Zizek, "Philosophy for Cynical Times"

Slavoj Zizek: How Donald Rumsfeld’s catastrophic ‘unknown unknowns’ approach on Iraq can help us deal with Covid crisis
Late US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made colossal errors of judgement during the Iraq War. But strange as it may seem, the thinking behind those terrible mistakes may prove invaluable in tackling the current global crisis.On June 29, Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense for Presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, and one of the main architects of the US invasion of Iraq, died at the age of 88. He will be remembered mostly for the catastrophic consequences of that invasion.

The goal of the American military intervention was not just to eliminate “the threat of the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction” – none of which were found after the occupation of Iraq – but to change Iraq into a modern secular state that would contain the influence of Iran. As a result, however, Iran only gained more influence in Iraq, Islamic fundamentalism saw a rise, many Christians left the country, women were pushed out of public life, and ISIS emerged out of the mess in Iraq.

What were the roots of such a colossal misjudgment? Here, enter philosophy.

In February 2002, Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown. “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know,” he said when asked about the evidence that Iraq could have been supplying WMDs to terrorist groups.

What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” things we don’t know that we know – which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say. If Rumsfeld thought that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the “unknown unknowns,” the threats from Saddam we were not even aware of, our reply should be that the main dangers were, on the contrary, the “unknown knowns,” the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we were not even aware of adhering to ourselves.

This distinction between unknown unknowns and unknown knowns is today more pertinent than ever.

In the case of ecology, disavowed beliefs and suppositions are the ones which prevent us from taking seriously the prospect of a catastrophe. And we cannot even understand the common reaction to the ongoing pandemic without the help of Rumsfeld’s epistemology.

Back in April 2020, reacting to the Covid-19 outbreak, prominent German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas pointed out that “existential insecurity is now spreading globally and simultaneously, in the minds of media-connected individuals themselves.” He wrote: “There has never been so much knowledge about our not knowing and about the compulsion to act and live under uncertainty.”

And he was right to claim that this “not knowing” concerns not only the pandemic itself – we at least have experts there – but even more so its economic, social, and mental consequences. Note his precise formulation: it is not simply that we don’t know what goes on, but that we know that we don’t know, and this not knowing is itself a social fact, inscribed into the ways our institutions act.

We now know that in, say, medieval times or early modernity people knew much less, but they didn’t know this, because they relied on some stable ideological foundation which guaranteed that our universe is a meaningful totality. The same holds for some visions of communism, even for Francis Fukuyama’s idea of the end of history – they all assumed to know where history was moving.

Habermas was also right to pinpoint the uncertainty in “the minds of media-connected individuals.” Our link to the wired universe tremendously expands our knowledge, but at the same time it throws us into radical uncertainty (Have we been hacked? Who controls our access? Do we read fake news?). The ongoing allegations about foreign hacking of US government institutions and big companies exemplify this uncertainty: Americans are now discovering that they cannot even determine the scope and methods of the hacking taking place. For the US, the viral threat is not only a biological one, but also digital.

It is no secret what needs to be done. First, we should finally recognize the pandemic crisis for what it is: part of a global crisis for our entire way of life, from ecology to new social tensions. Second, we should establish social control and regulation over the economy. Third, we should rely on science, but without simply accepting it as the agent of decision-making. To explain why, let’s return to Habermas: our predicament is that we are compelled to act while knowing that we don’t know the full coordinates of the situation we are in, and non-acting would itself function as an act. But is this not the basic situation of every action? Our great advantage is that we know how much we don’t know, and this knowing about our not knowing opens up a space of freedom. We act when we don’t know the whole situation, but this is not simply our limitation. What gives us freedom is that the situation – in our social sphere, at least – is in itself open, not fully (pre)determined.

We should read Habermas’ claim that we have never had so much knowledge about not knowing through Rumsfeld’s categories: the pandemic shook what we (thought we) knew that we knew; it made us aware of what we didn’t know that we didn’t know; and, in the way we confronted it, we relied on what we didn’t know that we know (all our presumptions and prejudices that determine our actions even though we are not aware of them). We are not dealing here with the simple passage from not knowing to knowing, but with the much more subtle passage from not knowing to knowing what we don’t know – our positive knowing remains the same in this passage, but we gain a free space for action.

It is with regard to what we don’t know that we know, our presumptions and prejudices, that the approach of China (and Taiwan and Vietnam) to the pandemic was so much better than that of Europe and the United States. I am getting tired of the eternally repeated claim, “Yes, the Chinese contained the virus, but at what price?”

While only a whistleblower can tell us the whole story of what really went on there, the fact is that when the virus broke out in Wuhan, the authorities imposed a lockdown and halted the majority of production across the country, clearly prioritizing human lives over the economy. This happened with some delay, true, but they took the crisis extremely seriously. Now they are reaping the rewards, including economically. And – let’s be clear – this was only possible because the Communist Party is still able to control and regulate the economy: there is social control over market mechanisms, albeit a ‘totalitarian’ control. The pandemic is not just a viral process; it is a process that takes place within certain economic, social, and ideological coordinates that are open to change.

According to the theory of complex systems, such systems have two opposite features: robust stable character and extreme vulnerability. These systems can accommodate great disturbances, integrate them, and find new balance and stability – up to a certain threshold (a ‘tipping point’), above which a small disturbance can cause a total catastrophe and lead to the establishment of a totally different order. For many centuries, humanity did not have to worry about the impact on the environment of its productive activity – nature was able to accommodate deforestation, the use of coal and oil, etc.

However, it seems that today we are approaching a tipping point – one really cannot be sure, since such points can only be clearly perceived once it is already too late. So we encounter a dilemma apropos of the urgency to do something about today's threat of different ecological catastrophes: either we take this threat seriously and decide today to do things which, if the catastrophe does not occur, will appear ridiculous; or we do nothing and lose everything in the case of the catastrophe. The worst case is the choice of a middle ground, of taking a limited amount of measures – in this case, we will fail whatever happens.

That is to say, the problem is that there is no middle ground with regard to the ecological catastrophe: either it will occur or it will not occur. In such a situation, talk of anticipation, precaution, and risk control tends to become meaningless, since we are dealing with the “unknown unknowns”: we not only do not know where the tipping point is, we do not know exactly what we do not know.

The most unsettling aspect of the ecological crisis concerns the so-called “knowledge in the real” which can run amok: when winter is too warm, plants and animals misread the hot weather in February as the signal that spring has already begun and start to behave accordingly, thus not only rendering themselves vulnerable to late onslaughts of cold, but also perturbing the entire rhythm of natural reproduction. This is how one should imagine a possible catastrophe: a small-level interruption with devastating global consequences.

So, to conclude, since we should respectfully follow the old Latin motto “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum” (“Of the dead, [say] nothing but good”), we should ignore all the catastrophic decisions of Donald Rumsfeld and remember him as an amateur philosopher who introduced some distinctions which are useful for analyzing our current predicament.


On Grub Street's Culture Factory

-Jared Marcel Pollen, "Blessed Are the Sense-Makers"
Years from now, if anyone looks at a line graph (in the OED or Google dictionary) tracking the frequency with which a word is mentioned in print, they may notice the current affinity for the word “narrative.” An already overworked word (by virtue of its abstractness), it is now almost impossible to avoid; we encounter it on a daily basis, especially when reading the news. It is a writer’s job to point out how words become flabby through overuse (such is the visceral aversion to cliché), but that is an elitist’s grievance. More telling is the way in which “narrative” has lately acquired the flavor of a pejorative.

The popular connotation, in this case, is one that encourages suspicion. For example, Eric Weinstein likes to refer to what he calls the “Gated Institutional Narrative” (a coinage he uses to indict the insular bias and self-protecting interests of newspapers like the New York Times) to describe a false sense of reality, supported by a phony consensus that is held in place (often in bad faith) by an educated class who have failed in their duty to inform the public. We are inclined to see our distrust of media as evidence of our own elevated literacy: we read the news itself much as we read its content; we know we’re being sold a story and assume bias as the price of entry. But this distrust does not evolve out of enlightened skepticism, as it is shared by those most susceptible to disinformation and conspiracy theorizing. Even those who have little interest in the news and/or do a poor job at reading it seem to agree that the press is out to deceive them.

The Internet’s liberation of information—and disinformation—has engendered distrust in the explanatory power of journalists. Indeed, public distrust of journalism now resembles distrust of the clergy in the 16th century. In modern secular societies, journalists constitute the new priest class, and the media the chief sense-making institution. Nietzsche, who was famously contemptuous of journalism, had already intuited this in the 19th century when he said that newspapers had replaced prayer in modern life. The news offers us the opportunity, previously reserved for the pew, to reflect on the state of the world and consider the sufferings of others, and it has become the job of writers, critics, and journalists (as the primary generators of ideas) to lead their congregations.

Pundits, in possession of “expert” opinions, comprise one such class, as do those Foucault called savants, or “specific intellectuals” who have narrow interests and who toil in established fields of study. Generalist writers and journalists, by virtue of appealing to the largest number, are universalists. But in the market of ideas, the most prized commodity is the “public intellectual.” Podcasts, now the premier delivery system for these figures, have become mobile symposiums, where omnipresent voices furnish a cathedral-like environment (what Marshall McLuhan termed “acoustic space”) that possesses and ignites the tribal mind. In the virtual church that is the online world, the “platform” has become the pulpit, and “followers” (a word that betrays itself) the new laity.

The closest historical analogue to this intellectual dislocation would be the invention of the printing press. Like our own digital age, the Gutenberg revolution marked a point of no return for humanity, and its destabilizing effects were extensive: a century and a half of religious sectarianism, civil war, autos-da-fé, and odium theologicum. A Whiggish reading of history encourages us to see the invention of movable type as inevitably progressive, an event that would ultimately lead to the Scientific Revolution, liberalism, and the Enlightenment. This is true, but it requires taking the long view. As much as print did for literacy, individualism, and science, it did just as much for falsehood, fundamentalism, and disinformation. In her seminal work, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein writes that “Mystification as well as enlightenment resulted from the output of early printers,” and while print gave “a great impetus to wide dissemination of accurate knowledge,” it also gave equal impetus to “fraudulent esoteric writings” which “worked in the opposite direction.”

In 1543, for instance, Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus was published. That same year, however, Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies went into print, a groundwork for German anti-Semitism (heavily reprinted by the Nazis) and a tool of pogroms for centuries. By the early 16th century, books on angels, demons, magic, divination, numerology, and other arcane subjects were in wide circulation; astrology (considered a naturalistic discipline by the standards of its time) experienced a revival; texts on secret societies like the Rosicrucians set off conspiracies about hidden knowledge held by underground cosmopolitan elites; and works like Malleus Maleficarum (1486) set off a “witch-craze” in places like England and Germany.

Eisenstein reminds us that many people, credulous and barely literate, were able to make sense of this material, and that “for at least a century and a half confusion persisted.” The gift of print fostered distrust in institutional narratives, but this new technology did not automatically teach people how to adapt, nor ensure the level of self-education it demanded of them. Protestantism announced itself as a corrective to this, partly by granting interpretive powers to the individual based on the strength of faith alone (sola fide, sola scriptura). Gutenberg’s revolution democratized information and Luther’s revolution democratized knowledge by placing the individual’s sense-making ability on par with men of the cloth.

It wasn’t until the Enlightenment, however, that this pledge was fulfilled. In the 18th century, French and English philosophers argued that the use of reason was the inheritance of all humankind. (Previous thinkers, from Plato to Machiavelli, believed that only philosophers could make responsible use of this faculty, which gave them the duty to order reality for the rest of society.) This was symbolized by Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which could be placed in every household and read independent of any persuasive authority, a Promethean project that d’Alembert actually described as a “conspiracy” in his primer to the first edition.

With this gift, the power of sense-making was successfully wrested from the first and second estates, which crumbled accordingly. But the evacuation of non-democratic classes like the clergy and the aristocracy left people rudderless, stranded without tradition (a term that could easily substitute for “narrative”). The third and fourth estates—the only estates left standing—were thus obliged to reinforce each other. This was what Nietzsche meant by his remark that newspapers were colonizing the rest of life. Oscar Wilde also deplored the fourth estate’s grip on people’s sense of reality, and likened journalists to inquisitorial priests with his quip: “In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press.”

A key vanguard of this new estate were writers, now empowered as narrative-makers. The formation of an individual conscience through the interpretation of text (a project that began with Protestantism) shifted from the Bible to literature as novels emerged as a popular form of self-reflection. The idea that it was the writer’s job to assist people in the conduct of life by providing examples of how good character is formed found its place in the bildungsroman, the novel of education, as well as in the moralistic, lesson-heavy novels of the 19th century (Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, Crime & Punishment).

This was especially the case in a raw democracy like the United States, a young society with no past, which relied on new foundational myths and the creation of its own narrative. Emerson was the first to advocate this in “The American Scholar,” in which he wrote that it was the job of the sense-making class to “cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.” Emerson, who studied at Harvard Divinity School and worked as a pastor for several years, had clerical ambitions for writers, and his prescriptive speeches have the febrile high-style of sermons.

Emerson’s championing of individualism and intuitive education, free of systems and traditions, eventually found its archetype in Abraham Lincoln, that great autodidact. But intellectual life in a democracy is far more perilous. The pledge of a democratic society is that every person gets to decide for themselves—that anyone can “figure it out”—and that there is equality in both opinion and in the ability to form an opinion. But Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to argue that equalizing opinions can make them coercive en masse. That is, the more people feel “on their own” in developing a worldview, the more susceptible they are to consensus, and the more reliant they become on the opinions of others for guidance. The removal of inherited beliefs previously determined by class, ancestry, religion, and culture, means that the new “narrative” will be whatever large numbers of people come to believe it is; otherwise known as “popular opinion.”

Tocqueville was describing intellectual life amid the democratization of sense-making. His “tyranny of the majority” refers less to an actual ratio than to the way in which popular opinion threatens independence of mind, a phenomenon that equally affects groups that consider themselves to be in a minority. As Allan Bloom writes in The Closing of the American Mind:
Even those who appear to be free-thinkers really look to a constituency and expect one day to be part of a majority. They are creatures of public opinion as much as are conformists—actors of nonconformism in the theater of the conformists who admire and applaud nonconformity of certain kinds, the kinds that radicalize the already dominant opinions.
The danger is not that people won’t see themselves as intelligent or reasonable individuals, but that their dependence on popular sources of “perspective” will weaken their ability to think for themselves. Emerson (who delivered “The American Scholar” two years after Democracy in America was published) agreed with Tocqueville that when opinion becomes part of the operational machinery of a society (as it is in a democracy), the individual is doomed to some extent to become “the parrot of other men’s thinking.” Emerson’s stated aim was that the scholar would save democratic man from falling into the “mass” or the “herd.” If this sounds elitist, that’s because it is. Democracies breed distrust of elites, a resentment leftover and displaced from the old distrust of nobility and clergy. Democratic resentment of elitism is attached to the distrust of narratives fashioned by the educated class, and indeed words like “educated” and “elite,” which are often applied to the media, are regularly used in tandem.

Unsurprisingly, people tend to prefer news that is more interactive and democratic—the kind that relies on opinion polling and participation. The news has always encouraged group participation, but not until very recently has it become central to its survival. It is now truly bi-directional, as social media and blogging platforms allow all information to be shared in one virtual square, where comment threads become rambling appendages to articles, commentaries on the commentary appear in the same space, every voice can be heard at once, and every contribution is equalized by the same sized font.

At the time Tocqueville was writing, most Americans got their news from local papers, and their ability to share it didn’t extend far beyond their community. This, he believed, would keep the nation safe from populism, because no single figure could command the headspace of the entire country. We have now returned to something like this decentralized environment, but its threats are unfamiliar. True independence of mind may still be impossible, but the danger now is that it will appear possible, as information siloing and algorithmically generated content (tailored to psychological profiles) furnish a circle in which we are always the center, a mobile solipsism masquerading as individualism.

Emerson’s hope that an original and democratic mind could come to know nature as “an open book” has never been so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things to know, let alone think about. In the 16th century, when it was possible to read most of what had been written, Montaigne despaired that Diomedes “wrote six thousand books on the subject of grammar” alone. What would he make of our info-glutted landscape today? A world in which Diderot’s dream has been realized, where we carry in our pockets a limitless encyclopedia, a veritable Library of Babel, the depths of which one couldn’t explore in a thousand lifetime.

All emerging technologies induce a kind of psychic trauma (conscious or unconscious) and require some rewiring of our critical faculties. Media, according to McLuhan, is an extension of the central nervous system, and not for nothing are newspapers and magazines known as organs—they are literally appendages of our senses. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan describes how movable type reshaped our way of thinking by making it more linear and sequential. It also fixed much of humanity’s knowledge to bound texts (hence Mallarmé’s remark that everything in the world exists to end up in a book). Today, the Gutenberg Brain, which was once poised to know the world as one knows a book, has been stripped of its sense-making potential, and a new kind of mind is clearly needed for the digital age.

The question is how much work a person should do to make sense of their reality, both out of self-interest and according to the responsibilities their societies place on them as citizens. In an article entitled “There Is Simply Too Much to Think About,” Saul Bellow offered an answer to John F. Kennedy’s crisp proposition: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” “One can be preoccupied with it,” Bellow wrote. “That is, one can hold enlightened opinions.” Indeed, this is the very least that can be asked of anyone with the ability to vote. The stability of a polis rests on the education of its citizens. That is why Plato’s Republic is as concerned with the nature of Truth as it is with state-building. In Plato’s society, however, only the ruling class needed to know the world as it is in the light of the sun. In a democracy, this task is assigned to everybody.

But how much sense can an average citizen be expected to make of their reality? How much, for that matter, can the sense-makers? How much time can be set aside every day to consider the rising sea levels, the heating atmosphere, the lopped palm fields, the tyrannies of faraway regimes, poverty, famine, plague, mass surveillance, gun violence, geopolitical crises, nuclear proliferation, institutional political corruption, systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, AI, UBI—and do the deep-sea thinking that all these issues demand.

In the best of all possible worlds—in which the market of ideas isn’t contaminated by falsehood, disinformation, and bad faith—most people would still need help developing an opinion about any one of these subjects, which they have neither the time nor the energy to fully research and consider. In this kind of information ecosystem, informed sense-makers are surely needed more than ever. People have always appealed to an educated class for the interpretation of reality, and there is no society in which people separately and spontaneously self-educate and reject entirely the opinions of informed authorities.

Previous epochs have shown that trust in sense-making institutions is never abandoned wholesale. When one authority is displaced, another rushes in to fill the void; the old guard loses influence, and intellectual prestige is shifted elsewhere. A certain amount of dependence is therefore necessary and to be expected, along with the received beliefs that come with it. Rousseau said as much when he pointed out that the rational liberals of his time might easily have been religious zealots two centuries earlier. All societies, regardless of their political order and level of enlightenment, exert pressure towards intellectual conformity, and the line between education and conformity is often unclear.

If we follow Tocqueville’s logic, another advance in the democratization of knowledge will paradoxically produce still more herd-like behavior, and nowhere has this been demonstrated more hideously than on social media. No “Gated Institutional Narrative” can hope to compete (at least, not for long) with the all-swallowing leviathan that is the Internet. If the culture were a book, as Mallarmé thought, it would be a postmodern novel in which the characters, conscious of the author’s operations, have conspired against them and hijacked the story. The narrative is now being written by everybody all the time. In which case, we should conduct ourselves with the same honesty and responsibility that we demand of the gatekeepers in whom we have lost faith.


Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Meanwhile in Ancient Hamlin...

Raphael Kadushin, "The grim truth behind the Pied Piper"
Writers like the Grimm Brothers and Robert Browning may have shaped the Pied Piper legend into art, but it turns out the story is likely based on an actual historical incident.

Every working morning for the last 26 years, Michael Boyer has slipped into a pair of neon-bright, multi-coloured tights, tied on his lipstick-red cape, grabbed his flute and marched out into the medieval streets of Hamelin, a town of 60,000 residents in Lower Saxony, Germany.
People sometimes mistake me for a superhero, court jester or Robin Hood
“People sometimes mistake me for a superhero, court jester or Robin Hood,” he laughed. He’s also increasingly become an Instagram prop for tourists and, maybe in some woke eyes, a gender-fluid statement.

But most people recognise him for what he is, the Pied Piper incarnate, appointed by Hamelin to impersonate its simultaneously favourite (at least commercially) and least favourite adopted son. Responsible for meeting and greeting visiting groups and dignitaries, he leads tours of the city and embodies the enduring hold of the legend that draws most travellers here.

The tale in fact has survived for a very long time. Originating as medieval folklore, the story inspired a Goethe verse, Der Rattenfänger; a Grimm Brothers’ legend, The Children of Hamelin; and one of Robert Browning’s best-known poems, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. And although each writer tinkered with the story, the basics remained the same: the Piper was hired by Hamelin to rid the town of its plague of rats. Trailing after the hypnotic notes of the rat-catcher’s magical flute, the rodents politely filed through the city gates to their presumed doom.

They weren’t the only ones lured by his music, though. When the town refused to pay the Piper for his service, the saviour turned into a more satanic seducer and came for Hamelin’s children. Entranced by the notes of his flute, the transfixed boys and girls followed the Piper out of town and simply vanished.

While the tale has endured, so has Hamelin itself, which still looks as though it belongs in a fairy tale. Boyer’s tour leads visitors past rows of half-timbered houses. There are 16th Century burgher manors encrusted with Gothic gables and scrollwork, and flamboyant wedding cake buildings offering prime examples of the local Weser-Renaissance architecture, all leering gargoyles and brightly coloured polychrome wood carvings.

However, all this is merely background for the town’s real cottage industry, which cashes in on all things Piper. The local restaurants plate a “rat tail” signature dish made from thinly sliced pork, and the bakeries do a brisk business in rodent-shaped breads and cakes. The Hameln Museum offers a sound and light Pied Piper re-enactment; local actors put on an open-air Pied Piper play during summer; and the souvenir shops hawk their own rat-inspired memorabilia. You can go home, if you wish, loaded down with Pied Piper T-shirts, fridge magnets, mugs and flutes.

What could pass for mere comic relief, though, masks something deeper, and suggests why the legend lives on not only in Hamelin but in enduring folklore. On some level, the tale stokes a primal fear, with the Piper a version of a universal bogey man that continues to haunt us. Parents everywhere still fear the loss of their babies. Children, popping up on the nightly news, still go missing every day. And then we all ultimately vanish in something like an instant. The Piper, in the end, is one very grim reaper.

But if the tale evokes a universal fear, it still resonates most strongly in Hamelin – and the Piper’s tour suggests why. In fact, the real surprise of his tour isn’t so much the beautifully preserved townscape but the suggestion that the Pied Piper is much more than just a fairy tale. The Grimm Brothers and Browning may have shaped the legend into art, but the story, it turns out, is likely based on an actual historical incident.

The proof is etched on Hamelin’s face itself. An inscribed plaque on the stone facade of the so-called Pied Piper house, a half-timbered private residence dating to 1602 – similar to an even earlier one etched on the building’s window – bears explicit witness to the mystery. The inscription reads:

“A.D. 1284 – on the 26th of June – the day of St John and St Paul – 130 children – born in Hamelin – were led out of the town by a piper wearing multicoloured clothes. After passing the Calvary near the Koppenberg they disappeared forever.”

The inscription isn’t the only clue. An entry in Hamelin’s town records, dating to 1384, laments that, “It is 100 years since our children left.” The stained-glass window in the town’s St Nicolai church, destroyed in the 17th Century but described in earlier accounts, reportedly illustrated the figure of the Pied Piper leading several ghostly white children. And the 15th Century Luneburg manuscript, an early German account of the event, along with five historical memory verses, some in Latin and others in Middle Low German, all refer to a similar story of 130 children or young people vanishing on the 26 June 1284, following a pied piper to a place called Calvary or Koppen.

The Pied Piper then, more than a fairy tale, becomes the emblem of a profound historical mystery. What happened to the missing children of Hamelin? Still the master seducer, the mesmerising rat-catcher is now leading a whole new trail of entranced followers – this time a conga line of historians each taking their own deep dive into the question of what exactly transpired in Hamelin on 26 June 1284.
In this scenario, the Pied Piper played the role of a so-called locator or recruiter
The theories are legion, according to Wibke Reimer, project coordinator at the Hameln Museum who has been organising a special exhibit that focuses on the global reach of the Pied Piper legend. One of the leading current theories suggests the town’s youth were part of a migration of Germans to Eastern Europe fuelled by an economic depression.

“In this scenario,” Reimer said, “the Pied Piper played the role of a so-called locator or recruiter. They were responsible for organising migrations to the east and were said to have worn colourful garments and played an instrument to attract the attention of possible settlers.”

While some historians believe that the youth emigrated to Transylvania, the German linguist Jürgen Udolph’s theory is most accepted. “He suggests the regions around Berlin as the most probable location, in an area that’s now [eastern Germany],” Reimer said, “and he backs up his theory by place name evidence.” In fact, Udolph found that the family names common in Hamelin at the time show up with surprising frequency in the areas of Uckermark and Prignitz, near Berlin, that he locates as the centre of the migration. The theory is also reinforced by evidence that the region, newly liberated from the Danes, was ripe for German colonisation.

More fanciful theories abound, too. Some historians suggest the legend reflects a 13th Century children’s crusade, part of the wave of medieval crusades aimed at winning back the Holy Land. And some argue the youth were lost to the Black Plague, though the dates don’t match up.

More intriguing is a theory that points to the medieval phenomenon of “dancing mania”, driven by a succession of pandemics and natural disasters. Known as St Vitus’ Dance, the dancing plague is documented surfacing in continental Europe as early as the 11th Century. A form of mass hysteria, the dance could spread from individuals to large groups, all driven by an unshakeable compulsion to dance feverishly, sometimes for weeks, often leaping and singing and sometimes hallucinating to the point of exhaustion and occasionally death, like a top that can’t stop spinning.

And, in fact, one 13th Century outbreak – a literal form of dance fever – occurred south of Hamelin, in the town of Erfurt, where a group of youths were documented as wildly gyrating as they travelled out of town, ending up 20km away in a neighbouring town. Some of the children, one chronicle suggests, expired shortly thereafter, having flat-out danced themselves to death, and those who survived were left with chronic tremors. Perhaps, some theorise, Hamelin witnessed a similar plague, dancing to the figurative tune of the Piper.

But all these theories neglect one specific key to the Hamelin mystery. “They don’t explain the very particular date cited for the loss of the children, and the local sense of trauma,” Reimer noted. “Did something happen that officials had been covering up? Something so traumatic that it was transmitted orally for so long in the town’s collective memory, over decades and even centuries?”

In fact, the date chronicled in all the local documentation pinpoint 26 June as the day the children disappeared. This day is also the date of pagan midsummer celebrations. The fact the documentation also emphasises that the youth followed the Piper to the Koppen, commonly translated as “hills”, suggest another link. “There were regions in Germany where midsummer was celebrated by lighting fires on the hills,” said Reimer. All that leads to one particularly macabre reading of the Pied Piper legend. Perhaps the Piper, emblematic of a pagan shaman, playing his flute, was leading the youth of Hamelin to their midsummer festivities when the local Christian faction, hoping to cement conversion of the region, waylaid and massacred the group. A less bloody theory: maybe the children were spirited away to local monasteries.

If the tale suggests a possible historical tragedy, though, it also offers an artistic redemption as well.

“The Pied Piper story,” said Reimer, preparing for the debut of her exhibit on 26 June, “is to our knowledge known in at least 42 countries and 30 languages, maybe more. And it appears in international art, literature and music. The Pied Piper is a shared heritage of many people, and that cultural heritage connects people.”

Ultimately, then, the Piper didn’t just fracture a community. He also, in the end, brought a larger one together.


Saturday, July 3, 2021

Some Kind of Fourth...

Free Julian Asange!

"Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet - and this is its horror - it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. 
Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil."
- Hannah Arendt, "Eichmann in Jersusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil"

Friday, July 2, 2021

Capitalism with One Boss

Slavoj Zizek, "Is communism authoritarian capitalism?

You certainly can abolish political freedom without abolishing market freedom — China proved it

On July 1, 1921, the founding congress of the Chinese Communist party was held in Shanghai, when 12 men gathered in a villa in the richest part of the city. Today, the party has over 90 million members. It has transformed not only China but the history of the entire world.

The main stages in its development are well-known. In late 1920, Mao Zedong took over and reoriented the party from city workers to poor farmers. In the mid-1930s, the Long March, although a retreat, established a link between the party and the people across China. In 1949, revolution won. From 1958 till 1975, the Great Leap forward and the Cultural Revolution tried to enforce fast economic and social change. That failed and caused millions of deaths; from 1978, after Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping introduced the opening towards capitalism under continued political control by the party. When, in the late 1980s, economic liberalization gave birth to political demands for democratization, the Tiananmen crackdown reasserted the party’s control.

China in the last decades is arguably one of the greatest economic success stories in human history — hundreds of millions have been raised from poverty into middle-class existence. How did China achieve that? The 20th-century left was defined by its opposition to two fundamental tendencies of modernity: the reign of capital with its aggressive individualism and alienating dynamics and the authoritarian-bureaucratic state power. What we get in today’s China is exactly the combination of these two features in extreme form: a strong authoritarian state with wild capitalist dynamics — this is the most efficient form of socialism today.

Yes, the Chinese authorities continue to reprint and regurgitate the Marxist classics from Marx to Mao, but if you take these texts seriously and act upon them, as some young students do when they try to help organize workers against the abuses of state power, you are arrested. In today’s China, one of the main functions of the Communist party is to prevent workers from organizing their resistance to capital — a wonderfully schizophrenic situation.

The irony is that, while, for Marx, Communism arises when capitalist production becomes an obstacle to the further development of the means of production, so that this development can be secured only by a (sudden or gradual) progress from capitalist market economy to socialized economy. Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reforms’ turned Marx around — at a certain point, one has to return to capitalism to enable the economic development of socialism.

Years ago, a Chinese social theorist with links to Deng Xiaoping’s daughter told me an interesting anecdote. When Deng was dying, an acolyte visited him and asked him what he thinks his greatest act was, expecting the usual answer that he will mention his economic opening that brought such development to China. To their surprise, he answered: ‘No, it was that, when the leadership decided to open up the economy, I resisted the temptation to go all the way and also open up the political life to multi-party democracy.’ (According to some sources, this tendency to go all the way was pretty strong in some party circles and the decision to maintain party control was in no way preordained.)

We should resist here the liberal temptation to dream about how, if China had moved towards political democracy, its economic progress would have been even faster. What if political democracy would have generated new instabilities and tensions that would have hampered economic progress? What if China’s capitalist progress was feasible only in a society dominated by a strong authoritarian power? The classical Marxist theory on early modern England stated it was in the bourgeoisie’s own interest to leave the political power to the aristocracy and keep for itself the economic power. Maybe something similar is going on in today’s China: it has been in the interest of the new capitalists to leave political power to the Communist party, since the Communist party is the best protector of the interests of capitalism.

It may appear that, in the passage from Cultural Revolution to Deng’s reforms, China passed from one extreme to another. However, there is a profound structural homology between the Maoist permanent self-revolutionizing, the permanent struggle against the ossification of state structures, and the inherent dynamics of capitalism.

Some naive leftists claim that it is the legacy of the Cultural Revolution and Maoism in general which acts as a counter-force to the unbridled capitalism, preventing its worst excesses, maintaining a minimum of social solidarity. What if, however, it is exactly the opposite? What if the Cultural Revolution, with its brutal erasure of past traditions, was a ‘shock’ which created the conditions for the ensuing capitalist explosion? What if China has to be added to Naomi Klein’s list of states in which a natural, military or social catastrophe cleared the slate for a new capitalist explosion?

The supreme irony of history is that it was Mao himself who created the ideological conditions for the rapid capitalist development by tearing apart the fabric of traditional society. What was his call to the people, especially the young ones, in the Cultural Revolution? Don’t wait for someone else to tell you what to do, you have the right to rebel! So, think and act for yourselves, destroy cultural relics, denounce and attack not only your elders, but also government and party officials! Swipe away the repressive state mechanisms and organize yourself in communes! And Mao’s call was heard — what followed was an explosion of the unrestrained passion to delegitimize all forms of authority, so that, at the end, Mao had to call the army in to restore some order. The paradox is that the key battle of the Cultural Revolution was not between the Communist party apparatus and the denounced traditionalist enemies, but between the Army and Communist party, and the forces that Mao himself called into being.

It is not just that capitalism can only thrive through permanent self-revolutionizing, as Marx pointed out; it is that capitalism again and again emerges as the only alternative, the only way to move forward, the dynamic force when social life gets stuck. Today, capitalism is revolutionary much more than the traditional left, obsessed as it is with protecting the old achievements of the welfare-state. Just see how much capitalism has changed the entire texture of our societies in the last decade.

Lenin’s New Economic Policy from the early 1920s when the Soviet power allowed to a certain degree private property and market economy. That was obviously the original model for Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, which opened the way for capitalist free market (under the control of the ruling Communist party) — instead of a half-decade of market liberalization, we have in China already half a century of what they euphemistically call the ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

So has China been following a gigantic New Economic Policy for over half a century? Instead of making fun of these measures or simply denouncing them as a defeat of socialism, as a step towards (authoritarian) capitalism, we should take the risk of extending this logic to its extreme. After the disintegration of East European Socialism in 1990, the joke was that socialism is a transition from capitalism back to capitalism.

But what if we make the opposite move and define capitalism itself as a socialist New Economic Policy, as a passage from feudalism (or premodern societies in general) to socialism? With the abolishment of premodern relations of direct personal relations of servitude and domination, with the assertion of principles of personal freedom and human rights, capitalist modernity is in itself socialist — no wonder that modernity again and again gave birth to revolts against domination which already pointed towards economic equality (large peasants’ revolts in Germany in early 1500s, Jacobins, etc.). Capitalism is a passage from pre-modernity to socialism in the sense of a compromise formation: it accepts the end of direct relations of domination, i.e., the principle of personal freedom and equality, but (as Marx put it in his classic formulation) it transposes domination from the relations between people to the relations between things (commodities): as individuals, we are all free, but domination persists in the relationship between commodities that we exchange on the market.

The big question that haunts us is of course: can you abolish market freedom without abolishing political freedom? You certainly can abolish political freedom without abolishing market freedom — China proved it. Yet the final result of its rule seems to be to provide a new form of authoritarian capitalism which will replace liberal capitalism. Is China then today the biggest threat to a genuine democratic emancipation? Should China therefore be the enemy of the left?

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Ridiculous Men...

Fyodor Dostoevsky, "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man" (1877)
Translated by Constance Garnett
Chapter I

I am a ridiculous person. Now they call me a madman. That would be a promotion if it were not that I remain as ridiculous in their eyes as before. But now I do not resent it, they are all dear to me now, even when they laugh at me - and, indeed, it is just then that they are particularly dear to me. I could join in their laughter--not exactly at myself, but through affection for them, if I did not feel so sad as I look at them. Sad because they do not know the truth and I do know it. Oh, how hard it is to be the only one who knows the truth! But they won't understand that. No, they won't understand it.

In old days I used to be miserable at seeming ridiculous. Not seeming, but being. I have always been ridiculous, and I have known it, perhaps, from the hour I was born. Perhaps from the time I was seven years old I knew I was ridiculous. Afterwards I went to school, studied at the university, and, do you know, the more I learned, the more thoroughly I understood that I was ridiculous. So that it seemed in the end as though all the sciences I studied at the university existed only to prove and make evident to me as I went more deeply into them that I was ridiculous. It was the same with life as it was with science. With every year the same consciousness of the ridiculous figure I cut in every relation grew and strengthened. Everyone always laughed at me. But not one of them knew or guessed that if there were one man on earth who knew better than anybody else that I was absurd, it was myself, and what I resented most of all was that they did not know that. But that was my own fault; I was so proud that nothing would have ever induced me to tell it to anyone. This pride grew in me with the years; and if it had happened that I allowed myself to confess to anyone that I was ridiculous, I believe that I should have blown out my brains the same evening. Oh, how I suffered in my early youth from the fear that I might give way and confess it to my schoolfellows. But since I grew to manhood, I have for some unknown reason become calmer, though I realised my awful characteristic more fully every year. I say 'unknown', for to this day I cannot tell why it was. Perhaps it was owing to the terrible misery that was growing in my soul through something which was of more consequence than anything else about me: that something was the conviction that had come upon me that nothing in the world mattered. I had long had an inkling of it, but the full realisation came last year almost suddenly. I suddenly felt that it was all the same to me whether the world existed or whether there had never been anything at all: I began to feel with all my being that there was nothing existing. At first I fancied that many things had existed in the past, but afterwards I guessed that there never had been anything in the past either, but that it had only seemed so for some reason. Little by little I guessed that there would be nothing in the future either. Then I left off being angry with people and almost ceased to notice them. Indeed this showed itself even in the pettiest trifles: I used, for instance, to knock against people in the street. And not so much from being lost in thought: what had I to think about? I had almost given up thinking by that time; nothing mattered to me. If at least I had solved my problems! Oh, I had not settled one of them, and how many there were! But I gave up caring about anything, and all the problems disappeared.

And it was after that that I found out the truth. I learnt the truth last November--on the third of November, to be precise-- and I remember every instant since. It was a gloomy evening, one of the gloomiest possible evenings. I was going home at about eleven o'clock, and I remember that I thought that the evening could not be gloomier. Even physically. Rain had been falling all day, and it had been a cold, gloomy, almost menacing rain, with, I remember, an unmistakable spite against mankind. Suddenly between ten and eleven it had stopped, and was followed by a horrible dampness, colder and damper than the rain, and a sort of steam was rising from everything, from every stone in the street, and from every by-lane if one looked down it as far as one could. A thought suddenly occurred to me, that if all the street lamps had been put out it would have been less cheerless, that the gas made one's heart sadder because it lighted it all up. I had had scarcely any dinner that day, and had been spending the evening with an engineer, and two other friends had been there also. I sat silent--I fancy I bored them. They talked of something rousing and suddenly they got excited over it. But they did not really care, I could see that, and only made a show of being excited. I suddenly said as much to them. "My friends," I said, "you really do not care one way or the other." They were not offended, but they laughed at me. That was because I spoke without any not of reproach, simply because it did not matter to me. They saw it did not, and it amused them.

As I was thinking about the gas lamps in the street I looked up at the sky. The sky was horribly dark, but one could distinctly see tattered clouds, and between them fathomless black patches. Suddenly I noticed in one of these patches a star, and began watching it intently. That was because that star had given me an idea: I decided to kill myself that night. I had firmly determined to do so two months before, and poor as I was, I bought a splendid revolver that very day, and loaded it. But two months had passed and it was still lying in my drawer; I was so utterly indifferent that I wanted to seize a moment when I would not be so indifferent--why, I don't know. And so for two months every night that I came home I thought I would shoot myself. I kept waiting for the right moment. And so now this star gave me a thought. I made up my mind that it should certainly be that night. And why the star gave me the thought I don't know.

And just as I was looking at the sky, this little girl took me by the elbow. The street was empty, and there was scarcely anyone to be seen. A cabman was sleeping in the distance in his cab. It was a child of eight with a kerchief on her head, wearing nothing but a wretched little dress all soaked with rain, but I noticed her wet broken shoes and I recall them now. They caught my eye particularly. She suddenly pulled me by the elbow and called me. She was not weeping, but was spasmodically crying out some words which could not utter properly, because she was shivering and shuddering all over. She was in terror about something, and kept crying, "Mammy, mammy!" I turned facing her, I did not say a word and went on; but she ran, pulling at me, and there was that note in her voice which in frightened children means despair. I know that sound. Though she did not articulate the words, I understood that her mother was dying, or that something of the sort was happening to them, and that she had run out to call someone, to find something to help her mother. I did not go with her; on the contrary, I had an impulse to drive her away. I told her first to go to a policeman. But clasping her hands, she ran beside me sobbing and gasping, and would not leave me. Then I stamped my foot and shouted at her. She called out "Sir! sir! . . ." but suddenly abandoned me and rushed headlong across the road. Some other passerby appeared there, and she evidently flew from me to him.

I mounted up to my fifth storey. I have a room in a flat where there are other lodgers. My room is small and poor, with a garret window in the shape of a semicircle. I have a sofa covered with American leather, a table with books on it, two chairs and a comfortable arm-chair, as old as old can be, but of the good old-fashioned shape. I sat down, lighted the candle, and began thinking. In the room next to mine, through the partition wall, a perfect Bedlam was going on. It had been going on for the last three days. A retired captain lived there, and he had half a dozen visitors, gentlemen of doubtful reputation, drinking vodka and playing stoss with old cards. The night before there had been a fight, and I know that two of them had been for a long time engaged in dragging each other about by the hair. The landlady wanted to complain, but she was in abject terror of the captain. There was only one other lodger in the flat, a thin little regimental lady, on a visit to Petersburg, with three little children who had been taken ill since they came into the lodgings. Both she and her children were in mortal fear of the captain, and lay trembling and crossing themselves all night, and the youngest child had a sort of fit from fright. That captain, I know for a fact, sometimes stops people in the Nevsky Prospect and begs. They won't take him into the service, but strange to say (that's why I am telling this), all this month that the captain has been here his behavior has caused me no annoyance. I have, of course, tried to avoid his acquaintance from the very beginning, and he, too, was bored with me from the first; but I never care how much they shout the other side of the partition nor how many of them there are in there: I sit up all night and forget them so completely that I do not even hear them. I stay awake till daybreak, and have been going on like that for the last year. I sit up all night in my arm-chair at the table, doing nothing. I only read by day. I sit--don't even think; ideas of a sort wander through my mind and I let them come and go as they will. A whole candle is burnt every night. I sat down quietly at the table, took out the revolver and put it down before me. When I had put it down I asked myself, I remember, "Is that so?" and answered with complete conviction, "It is." That is, I shall shoot myself. I knew that I should shoot myself that night for certain, but how much longer I should go on sitting at the table I did not know. And no doubt I should have shot myself if it had not been for that little girl.


Chapter II

You see, though nothing mattered to me, I could feel pain, for instance. If anyone had stuck me it would have hurt me. It was the same morally: if anything very pathetic happened, I should have felt pity just as I used to do in old days when there were things in life that did matter to me. I had felt pity that evening. I should have certainly helped a child. Why, then, had I not helped the little girl? Because of an idea that occurred to me at the time: when she was calling and pulling at me, a question suddenly arose before me and I could not settle it. The question was an idle one, but I was vexed. I was vexed at the reflection that if I were going to make an end of myself that night, nothing in life ought to have mattered to me. Why was it that all at once I did not feel a strange pang, quite incongruous in my position. Really I do not know better how to convey my fleeting sensation at the moment, but the sensation persisted at home when I was sitting at the table, and I was very much irritated as I had not been for a long time past. One reflection followed another. I saw clearly that so long as I was still a human being and not nothingness, I was alive and so could suffer, be angry and feel shame at my actions. So be it. But if I am going to kill myself, in two hours, say, what is the little girl to me and what have I to do with shame or with anything else in the world? I shall turn into nothing, absolutely nothing. And can it really be true that the consciousness that I shall completely cease to exist immediately and so everything else will cease to exist, does not in the least affect my feeling of pity for the child nor the feeling of shame after a contemptible action? I stamped and shouted at the unhappy child as though to say--not only I feel no pity, but even if I behave inhumanly and contemptibly, I am free to, for in another two hours everything will be extinguished. Do you believe that that was why I shouted that? I am almost convinced of it now. I seemed clear to me that life and the world somehow depended upon me now. I may almost say that the world now seemed created for me alone: if I shot myself the world would cease to be at least for me. I say nothing of its being likely that nothing will exist for anyone when I am gone, and that as soon as my consciousness is extinguished the whole world will vanish too and become void like a phantom, as a mere appurtenance of my consciousness, for possibly all this world and all these people are only me myself.

I remember that as I sat and reflected, I turned all these new questions that swarmed one after another quite the other way, and thought of something quite new. For instance, a strange reflection suddenly occurred to me, that if I had lived before on the moon or on Mars and there had committed the most disgraceful and dishonourable action and had there been put to such shame and ignominy as one can only conceive and realise in dreams, in nightmares, and if, finding myself afterwards on earth, I were able to retain the memory of what I had done on the other planet and at the same time knew that I should never, under any circumstances, return there, then looking from the earth to the moon--should I care or not? Should I feel shame for that action or not? These were idle and superfluous questions for the revolver was already lying before me, and I knew in every fibre of my being that it would happen for certain, but they excited me and I raged. I could not die now without having first settled something. In short, the child had saved me, for I put off my pistol shot for the sake of these questions. Meanwhile the clamour had begun to subside in the captain's room: they had finished their game, were settling down to sleep, and meanwhile were grumbling and languidly winding up their quarrels. At that point, I suddenly fell asleep in my chair at the table--a thing which had never happened to me before. I dropped asleep quite unawares.

Dreams, as we all know, are very queer things: some parts are presented with appalling vividness, with details worked up with the elaborate finish of jewellery, while others one gallops through, as it were, without noticing them at all, as, for instance, through space and time. Dreams seem to be spurred on not by reason but by desire, not by the head but by the heart, and yet what complicated tricks my reason has played sometimes in dreams, what utterly incomprehensible things happen to it! My brother died five years ago, for instance. I sometimes dream of him; he takes part in my affairs, we are very much interested, and yet all through my dream I quite know and remember that my brother is dead and buried. How is it that I am not surprised that, though he is dead, he is here beside me and working with me? Why is it that my reason fully accepts it? But enough. I will begin about my dream. Yes, I dreamed a dream, my dream of the third of November. They tease me now, telling me it was only a dream. But does it matter whether it was a dream or reality, if the dream made known to me the truth? If once one has recognized the truth and seen it, you know that it is the truth and that there is no other and there cannot be, whether you are asleep or awake. Let it be a dream, so be it, but that real life of which you make so much I had meant to extinguish by suicide, and my dream, my dream--oh, it revealed to me a different life, renewed, grand and full of power!


Chapter III

I have mentioned that I dropped asleep unawares and even seemed to be still reflecting on the same subjects. I suddenly dreamt that I picked up the revolver and aimed it straight at my heart--my heart, and not my head; and I had determined beforehand to fire at my head, at my right temple. After aiming at my chest I waited a second or two, and suddenly my candle, my table, and the wall in front of me began moving and heaving. I made haste to pull the trigger.

In dreams you sometimes fall from a height, or are stabbed, or beaten, but you never feel pain unless, perhaps, you really bruise yourself against the bedstead, then you feel pain and almost always wake up from it. It was the same in my dream. I did not feel any pain, but it seemed as though with my shot everything within me was shaken and everything was suddenly dimmed, and it grew horribly black around me. I seemed to be blinded, and it benumbed, and I was lying on something hard, stretched on my back; I saw nothing, and could not make the slightest movement. People were walking and shouting around me, the captain bawled, the landlady shrieked--and suddenly another break and I was being carried in a closed coffin. And I felt how the coffin was shaking and reflected upon it, and for the first time the idea struck me that I was dead, utterly dead, I knew it and had no doubt of it, I could neither see nor move and yet I was feeling and reflecting. But I was soon reconciled to the position, and as one usually does in a dream, accepted the facts without disputing them.

And now I was buried in the earth. They all went away, I was left alone, utterly alone. I did not move. Whenever before I had imagined being buried the one sensation I associated with the grave was that of damp and cold. So now I felt that I was very cold, especially the tips of my toes, but I felt nothing else.

I lay still, strange to say I expected nothing, accepting without dispute that a dead man had nothing to expect. But it was damp. I don't know how long a time passed--whether an hour or several days, or many days. But all at once a drop of water fell on my closed left eye, making its way through the coffin lid; it was followed a minute later by a second, then a minute later by a third--and so on, regularly every minute. There was a sudden glow of profound indignation in my heart, and I suddenly felt in it a pang of physical pain. "That's my wound," I thought; "that's the bullet . . ." And drop after drop every minute kept falling on my closed eyelid. And all at once, not with my voice, but with my entire being, I called upon the power that was responsible for all that was happening to me:

"Whoever you may be, if you exist, and if anything more rational that what is happening here is possible, suffer it to be here now. But if you are revenging yourself upon me for my senseless suicide by the hideousness and absurdity of this subsequent existence, then let me tell you that no torture could ever equal the contempt which I shall go on dumbly feeling, though my martyrdom may last a million years!"

I made this appeal and held my peace. There was a full minute of unbroken silence and again another drop fell, but I knew with infinite unshakable certainty that everything would change immediately. And behold my grave suddenly was rent asunder, that is, I don't know whether it was opened or dug up, but I was caught up by some dark and unknown being and we found ourselves in space. I suddenly regained my sight. It was the dead of night, and never, never had there been such darkness. We were flying through space far away from the earth. I did not question the being who was taking me; I was proud and waited. I assured myself that I was not afraid, and was thrilled with ecstasy at the thought that I was not afraid. I do not know how long we were flying, I cannot imagine; it happened as it always does in dreams when you skip over space and time, and the laws of thought and existence, and only pause upon the points for which the heart yearns. I remember that I suddenly saw in the darkness a star. "Is that Sirius?" I asked impulsively, though I had not meant to ask questions.

"No, that is the star you saw between the clouds when you were coming home," the being who was carrying me replied.

I knew that it had something like a human face. Strange to say, I did not like that being, in fact I felt an intense aversion for it. I had expected complete non-existence, and that was why I had put a bullet through my heart. And here I was in the hands of a creature not human, of course, but yet living, existing. "And so there is life beyond the grave," I thought with the strange frivolity one has in dreams. But in its inmost depth my heart remained unchanged. "And if I have got to exist again," I thought, "and live once more under the control of some irresistible power, I won't be vanquished and humiliated."

"You know that I am afraid of you and despise me for that," I said suddenly to my companion, unable to refrain from the humiliating question which implied a confession, and feeling my humiliation stab my heart as with a pin. He did not answer my question, but all at once I felt that he was not even despising me, but was laughing at me and had no compassion for me, and that our journey had an unknown and mysterious object that concerned me only. Fear was growing in my heart. Something was mutely and painfully communicated to me from my silent companion, and permeated my whole being. We were flying through dark, unknown space. I had for some time lost sight of the constellations familiar to my eyes. I knew that there were stars in the heavenly spaces the light of which took thousands or millions of years to reach the earth. Perhaps we were already flying through those spaces. I expected something with a terrible anguish that tortured my heart. And suddenly I was thrilled by a familiar feeling that stirred me to the depths: I suddenly caught sight of our sun! I knew that it could not be our sun, that gave life to our earth, and that we were an infinite distance from our sun, but for some reason I knew in my whole being that it was a sun exactly like ours, a duplicate of it. A sweet, thrilling feeling resounded with ecstasy in my heart: the kindred power of the same light which had given me light stirred an echo in my heart and awakened it, and I had a sensation of life, the old life of the past for the first time since I had been in the grave.

"But if that is the sun, if that is exactly the same as our sun," I cried, "where is the earth?"

And my companion pointed to a star twinkling in the distance with an emerald light. We were flying straight towards it.

"And are such repetitions possible in the universe? Can that be the law of Nature? . . . And if that is an earth there, can it be just the same earth as ours . . . just the same, as poor, as unhappy, but precious and beloved for ever, arousing in the most ungrateful of her children the same poignant love for her that we feel for our earth?" I cried out, shaken by irresistible, ecstatic love for the old familiar earth which I had left. The image of the poor child whom I had repulsed flashed through my mind.

"You shall see it all," answered my companion, and there was a note of sorrow in his voice.

But we were rapidly approaching the planet. It was growing before my eyes; I could already distinguish the ocean, the outline of Europe; and suddenly a feeling of a great and holy jealousy glowed in my heart.

"How can it be repeated and what for? I love and can love only that earth which I have left, stained with my blood, when, in my ingratitude, I quenched my life with a bullet in my heart. But I have never, never ceased to love that earth, and perhaps on the very night I parted from it I loved it more than ever. Is there suffering upon this new earth? On our earth we can only love with suffering and through suffering. We cannot love otherwise, and we know of no other sort of love. I want suffering in order to love. I long, I thirst, this very instant, to kiss with tears the earth that I have left, and I don't want, I won't accept life on any other!"

But my companion had already left me. I suddenly, quite without noticing how, found myself on this other earth, in the bright light of a sunny day, fair as paradise. I believe I was standing on one of the islands that make up on our globe the Greek archipelago, or on the coast of the mainland facing that archipelago. Oh, everything was exactly as it is with us, only everything seemed to have a festive radiance, the splendour of some great, holy triumph attained at last. The caressing sea, green as emerald, splashed softly upon the shore and kissed it with manifest, almost conscious love. The tall, lovely trees stood in all the glory of their blossom, and their innumerable leaves greeted me, I am certain, with their soft, caressing rustle and seemed to articulate words of love. The grass glowed with bright and fragrant flowers. Birds were flying in flocks in the air, and perched fearlessly on my shoulders and arms and joyfully struck me with their darling, fluttering wings. And at last I saw and knew the people of this happy land. That came to me of themselves, they surrounded me, kissed me. The children of the sun, the children of their sun--oh, how beautiful they were! Never had I seen on our own earth such beauty in mankind. Only perhaps in our children, in their earliest years, one might find, some remote faint reflection of this beauty. The eyes of these happy people shone with a clear brightness. Their faces were radiant with the light of reason and fullness of a serenity that comes of perfect understanding, but those faces were gay; in their words and voices there was a note of childlike joy. Oh, from the first moment, from the first glance at them, I understood it all! It was the earth untarnished by the Fall; on it lived people who had not sinned. They lived just in such a paradise as that in which, according to all the legends of mankind, our first parents lived before they sinned; the only difference was that all this earth was the same paradise. These people, laughing joyfully, thronged round me and caressed me; they took me home with them, and each of them tried to reassure me. Oh, they asked me no questions, but they seemed, I fancied, to know everything without asking, and they wanted to make haste to smoothe away the signs of suffering from my face.

Chapter IV

And do you know what? Well, granted that it was only a dream, yet the sensation of the love of those innocent and beautiful people has remained with me for ever, and I feel as though their love is still flowing out to me from over there. I have seen them myself, have known them and been convinced; I loved them, I suffered for them afterwards. Oh, I understood at once even at the time that in many things I could not understand them at all; as an up-to-date Russian progressive and contemptible Petersburger, it struck me as inexplicable that, knowing so much, they had, for instance, no science like our. But I soon realised that their knowledge was gained and fostered by intuitions different from those of us on earth, and that their aspirations, too, were quite different. They desired nothing and were at peace; they did not aspire to knowledge of life as we aspire to understand it, because their lives were full. But their knowledge was higher and deeper than ours; for our science seeks to explain what life is, aspires to understand it in order to teach others how to love, while they without science knew how to live; and that I understood, but I could not understand their knowledge. They showed me their trees, and I could not understand the intense love with which they looked at them; it was as though they were talking with creatures like themselves. And perhaps I shall not be mistaken if I say that they conversed with them. Yes, they had found their language, and I am convinced that the trees understood them. They looked at all Nature like that--at the animals who lived in peace with them and did not attack them, but loved them, conquered by their love. They pointed to the stars and told me something about them which I could not understand, but I am convinced that they were somehow in touch with the stars, not only in thought, but by some living channel. Oh, these people did not persist in trying to make me understand them, they loved me without that, but I knew that they would never understand me, and so I hardly spoke to them about our earth. I only kissed in their presence the earth on which they lived and mutely worshipped them themselves. And they saw that and let me worship them without being abashed at my adoration, for they themselves loved much. They were not unhappy on my account when at times I kissed their feet with tears, joyfully conscious of the love with which they would respond to mine. At times I asked myself with wonder how it was they were able never to offend a creature like me, and never once to arouse a feeling of jealousy or envy in me? Often I wondered how it could be that, boastful and untruthful as I was, I never talked to them of what I knew--of which, of course, they had no notion--that I was never tempted to do so by a desire to astonish or even to benefit them.

They were as gay and sportive as children. They wandered about their lovely woods and copses, they sang their lovely songs; their fair was light--the fruits of their trees, the honey from their woods, and the milk of the animals who loved them. The work they did for food and raiment was brief and not labourious. They loved and begot children, but I never noticed in them the impulse of that cruel sensuality which overcomes almost every man on this earth, all and each, and is the source of almost every sin of mankind on earth. They rejoiced at the arrival of children as new beings to share their happiness. There was no quarrelling, no jealousy among them, and they did not even know what the words meant. Their children were the children of all, for they all made up one family. There was scarcely any illness among them, though there was death; but their old people died peacefully, as though falling asleep, giving blessings and smiles to those who surrounded them to take their last farewell with bright and lovely smiles. I never saw grief or tears on those occasions, but only love, which reached the point of ecstasy, but a calm ecstasy, made perfect and contemplative. One might think that they were still in contact with the departed after death, and that their earthly union was not cut short by death. They scarcely understood me when I questioned them about immortality, but evidently they were so convinced of it without reasoning that it was not for them a question at all. They had no temples, but they had a real living and uninterrupted sense of oneness with the whole of the universe; they had no creed, but they had a certain knowledge that when their earthly joy had reached the limits of earthly nature, then there would come for them, for the living and for the dead, a still greater fullness of contact with the whole of the universe. They looked forward to that moment with joy, but without haste, not pining for it, but seeming to have a foretaste of it in their hearts, of which they talked to one another.

In the evening before going to sleep they liked singing in musical and harmonious chorus. In those songs they expressed all the sensations that the parting day had given them, sang its glories and took leave of it. They sang the praises of nature, of the sea, of the woods. They liked making songs about one another, and praised each other like children; they were the simplest songs, but they sprang from their hearts and went to one's heart. And not only in their songs but in all their lives they seemed to do nothing but admire one another. It was like being in love with each other, but an all-embracing, universal feeling.

Some of their songs, solemn and rapturous, I scarcely understood at all. Though I understood the words I could never fathom their full significance. It remained, as it were, beyond the grasp of my mind, yet my heart unconsciously absorbed it more and more. I often told them that I had had a presentiment of it long before, that this joy and glory had come to me on our earth in the form of a yearning melancholy that at times approached insufferable sorrow; that I had had a foreknowledge of them all and of their glory in the dreams of my heart and the visions of my mind; that often on our earth I could not look at the setting sun without tears. . . that in my hatred for the men of our earth there was always a yearning anguish: why could I not hate them without loving them? why could I not help forgiving them? and in my love for them there was a yearning grief: why could I not love them without hating them? They listened to me, and I saw they could not conceive what I was saying, but I did not regret that I had spoken to them of it: I knew that they understood the intensity of my yearning anguish over those whom I had left. But when they looked at me with their sweet eyes full of love, when I felt that in their presence my heart, too, became as innocent and just as theirs, the feeling of the fullness of life took my breath away, and I worshipped them in silence.

Oh, everyone laughs in my face now, and assures me that one cannot dream of such details as I am telling now, that I only dreamed or felt one sensation that arose in my heart in delirium and made up the details myself when I woke up. And when I told them that perhaps it really was so, my God, how they shouted with laughter in my face, and what mirth I caused! Oh, yes, of course I was overcome by the mere sensation of my dream, and that was all that was preserved in my cruelly wounded heart; but the actual forms and images of my dream, that is, the very ones I really saw at the very time of my dream, were filled with such harmony, were so lovely and enchanting and were so actual, that on awakening I was, of course, incapable of clothing them in our poor language, so that they were bound to become blurred in my mind; and so perhaps I really was forced afterwards to make up the details, and so of course to distort them in my passionate desire to convey some at least of them as quickly as I could. But on the other hand, how can I help believing that it was all true? It was perhaps a thousand times brighter, happier and more joyful than I describe it. Granted that I dreamed it, yet it must have been real. You know, I will tell you a secret: perhaps it was not a dream at all! For then something happened so awful, something so horribly true, that it could not have been imagined in a dream. My heart may have originated the dream, but would my heart alone have been capable of originating the awful event which happened to me afterwards? How could I alone have invented it or imagined it in my dream? Could my petty heart and fickle, trivial mind have risen to such a revelation of truth? Oh, judge for yourselves: hitherto I have concealed it, but now I will tell the truth. The fact is that I . . . corrupted them all!

Chapter V

Yes, yes, it ended in my corrupting them all! How it could come to pass I do not know, but I remember it clearly. The dream embraced thousands of years and left in me only a sense of the whole. I only know that I was the cause of their sin and downfall. Like a vile trichina, like a germ of the plague infecting whole kingdoms, so I contaminated all this earth, so happy and sinless before my coming. They learnt to lie, grew fond of lying, and discovered the charm of falsehood. Oh, at first perhaps it began innocently, with a jest, coquetry, with amorous play, perhaps indeed with a germ, but that germ of falsity made its way into their hearts and pleased them. Then sensuality was soon begotten, sensuality begot jealousy, jealousy--cruelty . . . Oh, I don't know, I don't remember; but soon, very soon the first blood was shed. They marvelled and were horrified, and began to be split up and divided. They formed into unions, but it was against one another. Reproaches, upbraidings followed. They came to know shame, and shame brought them to virtue. The conception of honour sprang up, and every union began waving its flags. They began torturing animals, and the animals withdrew from them into the forests and became hostile to them. They began to struggle for separation, for isolation, for individuality, for mine and thine. They began to talk in different languages. They became acquainted with sorrow and loved sorrow; they thirsted for suffering, and said that truth could only be attained through suffering. Then science appeared. As they became wicked they began talking of brotherhood and humanitarianism, and understood those ideas. As they became criminal, they invented justice and drew up whole legal codes in order to observe it, and to ensure their being kept, set up a guillotine. They hardly remembered what they had lost, in fact refused to believe that they had ever been happy and innocent. They even laughed at the possibility o this happiness in the past, and called it a dream. They could not even imagine it in definite form and shape, but, strange and wonderful to relate, though they lost all faith in their past happiness and called it a legend, they so longed to be happy and innocent once more that they succumbed to this desire like children, made an idol of it, set up temples and worshipped their own idea, their own desire; though at the same time they fully believed that it was unattainable and could not be realised, yet they bowed down to it and adored it with tears! Nevertheless, if it could have happened that they had returned to the innocent and happy condition which they had lost, and if someone had shown it to them again and had asked them whether they wanted to go back to it, they would certainly have refused. They answered me:

"We may be deceitful, wicked and unjust, we know it and weep over it, we grieve over it; we torment and punish ourselves more perhaps than that merciful Judge Who will judge us and whose Name we know not. But we have science, and by the means of it we shall find the truth and we shall arrive at it consciously. Knowledge is higher than feeling, the consciousness of life is higher than life. Science will give us wisdom, wisdom will reveal the laws, and the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness."

That is what they said, and after saying such things everyone began to love himself better than anyone else, and indeed they could not do otherwise. All became so jealous of the rights of their own personality that they did their very utmost to curtail and destroy them in others, and made that the chief thing in their lives. Slavery followed, even voluntary slavery; the weak eagerly submitted to the strong, on condition that the latter aided them to subdue the still weaker. Then there were saints who came to these people, weeping, and talked to them of their pride, of their loss of harmony and due proportion, of their loss of shame. They were laughed at or pelted with stones. Holy blood was shed on the threshold of the temples. Then there arose men who began to think how to bring all people together again, so that everybody, while still loving himself best of all, might not interfere with others, and all might live together in something like a harmonious society. Regular wars sprang up over this idea. All the combatants at the same time firmly believed that science, wisdom and the instinct of self-preservation would force men at last to unite into a harmonious and rational society; and so, meanwhile, to hasten matters, 'the wise' endeavoured to exterminate as rapidly as possible all who were 'not wise' and did not understand their idea, that the latter might not hinder its triumph. But the instinct of self-preservation grew rapidly weaker; there arose men, haughty and sensual, who demanded all or nothing. In order to obtain everything they resorted to crime, and if they did not succeed--to suicide. There arose religions with a cult of non-existence and self-destruction for the sake of the everlasting peace of annihilation. At last these people grew weary of their meaningless toil, and signs of suffering came into their faces, and then they proclaimed that suffering was a beauty, for in suffering alone was there meaning. They glorified suffering in their songs. I moved about among them, wringing my hands and weeping over them, but I loved them perhaps more than in old days when there was no suffering in their faces and when they were innocent and so lovely. I loved the earth they had polluted even more than when it had been a paradise, if only because sorrow had come to it. Alas! I always loved sorrow and tribulation, but only for myself, for myself; but I wept over them, pitying them. I stretched out my hands to them in despair, blaming, cursing and despising myself. I told them that all this was my doing, mine alone; that it was I had brought them corruption, contamination and falsity. I besought them to crucify me, I taught them how to make a cross. I could not kill myself, I had not the strength, but I wanted to suffer at their hands. I yearned for suffering, I longed that my blood should be drained to the last drop in these agonies. But they only laughed at me, and began at last to look upon me as crazy. They justified me, they declared that they had only got what they wanted themselves, and that all that now was could not have been otherwise. At last they declared to me that I was becoming dangerous and that they should lock me up in a madhouse if I did not hold my tongue. Then such grief took possession of my soul that my heart was wrung, and I felt as though I were dying; and then . . . then I awoke.

It was morning, that is, it was not yet daylight, but about six o'clock. I woke up in the same arm-chair; my candle had burnt out; everyone was asleep in the captain's room, and there was a stillness all round, rare in our flat. First of all I leapt up in great amazement: nothing like this had ever happened to me before, not even in the most trivial detail; I had never, for instance, fallen asleep like this in my arm-chair. While I was standing and coming to myself I suddenly caught sight of my revolver lying loaded, ready - but instantly I thrust it away! Oh, now, life, life! I lifted up my hands and called upon eternal truth, not with words, but with tears; ecstasy, immeasurable ecstasy flooded my soul. Yes, life and spreading the good tidings! Oh, I at that moment resolved to spread the tidings, and resolved it, of course, for my whole life. I go to spread the tidings, I want to spread the tidings--of what? Of the truth, for I have seen it, have seen it with my own eyes, have seen it in all its glory.

And since then I have been preaching! Moreover I love all those who laugh at me more than any of the rest. Why that is so I do not know and cannot explain, but so be it. I am told that I am vague and confused, and if I am vague and confused now, what shall I be later on? It is true indeed: I am vague and confused, and perhaps as time goes on I shall be more so. And of course I shall make many blunders before I find out how to preach, that is, find out what words to say, what things to do, for it is a very difficult task. I see all that as clear as daylight, but, listen, who does not make mistakes? An yet, you know, all are making for the same goal, all are striving in the same direction anyway, from the sage to the lowest robber, only by different roads. It is an old truth, but this is what is new: I cannot go far wrong. For I have seen the truth; I have seen and I know that people can be beautiful and happy without losing the power of living on earth. I will not and cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of mankind. And it is just this faith of mine that they laugh at. But how can I help believing it? I have seen the truth--it is not as though I had invented it with my mind, I have seen it, seen it, and the living image of it has filled my soul for ever. I have seen it in such full perfection that I cannot believe that it is impossible for people to have it. And so how can I go wrong? I shall make some slips no doubt, and shall perhaps talk in second-hand language, but not for long: the living image of what I saw will always be with me and will always correct and guide me. Oh, I am full of courage and freshness, and I will go on and on if it were for a thousand years! Do you know, at first I meant to conceal the fact that I corrupted them, but that was a mistake--that was my first mistake! But truth whispered to me that I was lying, and preserved me and corrected me. But how establish paradise--I don't know, because I do not know how to put it into words. After my dream I lost command of words. All the chief words, anyway, the most necessary ones. But never mind, I shall go and I shall keep talking, I won't leave off, for anyway I have seen it with my own eyes, though I cannot describe what I saw. But the scoffers do not understand that. It was a dream, they say, delirium, hallucination. Oh! As though that meant so much! And they are so proud! A dream! What is a dream? And is not our life a dream? I will say more. Suppose that this paradise will never come to pass (that I understand), yet I shall go on preaching it. And yet how simple it is: in one day, in one hour everything could be arranged at once! The chief thing is to love others like yourself, that's the chief thing, and that's everything; nothing else is wanted--you will find out at once how to arrange it all. And yet it's an old truth which has been told and retold a billion times--but it has not formed part of our lives! The consciousness of life is higher than life, the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness--that is what one must contend against. And I shall. If only everyone wants it, it can be arranged at once.

And I tracked down that little girl . . . and I shall go on and on!