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What in each case is given

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Perhaps, maybe, a follow-up to the previous post. From the Arcades Project:

“The concept of progress must be grounded in the
idea of catastrophe. That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what
in each case is given.”

UPDATE (in response to Ft. Kant’s question in the comments):

It’s from the N convolute, "On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress." N9a,1. Page 473 in the Harvard ed.

Actually, the quote continues "Thus Strindberg (in To Damascus): hell is not something that awaits us, but this life here and now."

For a gloss on the second line, I’d consider the distinction between "homogeneous, empty time" and "jetzt-zeit" in the theses "On The Philosophy of History."

“The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself.” (Thesis XIII)

The social democratic concept of progress, to Benjamin’s mind, slides into an affirmation of the status quo. Jetzt-zeit depends on a different idea of change – qualitative rather than quantative, extra-temporal rather than temporal.

I also think this little snippet is a fantastic example of Benjamin’s "thetic" mode of writing – the sort of movement spread out a bit in the "Work of Art" essay  or the theses "On the Philosophy of History." Each step forward seems to cancel the previous one out – a writerly performance of the very temporality Benjamin seeks to describe here.

And finally, I tend to think all this is bound up with (or bindable with) the "creative destruction" characteristic of capitalism, whose "progress" requires continual "catastrophe," whose status-quo is the catastrophe, the collapse….

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April 12, 2005 at 1:55 am

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Dominant Centre

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Wolcott’s got a post up about the coming US fiscal-economic crisis. I try to keep abreast of this stuff – read my FT and the business section of the Times (and Delong, for better or usually worse). But Wolcott’s been reading the subscription sheets of the analysts – worth a look. Just to give you a sense.

There’s a pattern here. As with Peak Oil, global warming, the real
estate bubble, and the various US deficits, there’s a general awareness
of Trouble Coming and yet no sense of urgency or battle plan. It isn’t
that the media, the political class, and the media are paralyzed by
fear or overwhelmed by alternative solutions, it’s as if everyone is
assuming that we can sleepwalk through the next crisis and muddle
through as we always have with only minor hiccups, if any, in our
lifestyles. As Stephen Roach and others have warned, the American consumer is now so indebted and
lacking in savings that there’s little cushion for the next reversal of
fortune. Almost any soft landing could turn hard.

OK, so other than a sort of irrational schadenfreude about the US economy that I (try to) hide under my mattress, why am I bringing this forward? Ferdinand Braudel, in his Afterthoughts on Material Culture and Civilization, advances a theory about financial crises and the shifting geopolitical (and perhaps ideological, cultural) "centers" of the world. I can’t for the life of me find my copy. But here’s John Plender summarizing in the FT a few months back:

No one can satisfactorily explain 1929 financial crash. One plausible theory is that such events
accompany rise and fall of financial hegemonies. Braudel, a French historian, argues that the world
always has a dominant centre. Over the centuries this has gone from Venice to Antwerp, Genoa,
Amsterdam, London and New York. The dominant centre usually presides over a dominant
currency. Being world reserve currency allows country to write cheques that no one cashes. Braudel
dates transfer of power from London to NY as 1929 – and it makes intuitive sense that dislocation
could occur in interregnum. 1987 stock market crash coincided with rise of Japan as main source of
international financial capital. 1974 crash which went further and faster than 1929 coincided with
shift of economic power to OPEC. Now it is not hard to make the case that US has reached high
point – with huge fiscal deficit, low savings, dependence on foreign capital (though this is
offset by
recent productivity gains). US now depends on China to supply capital needs. Economic power is
now shifting to Asia.

When I find my Braudel, perhaps I’ll revise this post. But here’s what I’m thinking about. Does the coming financial crisis in the US foreshadow a shift in not only the political and economic, but also cultural "center" of the world? Will the ideological/cultural center shift with the money and concomitant political power? Can we imagine a world in which the US wasn’t the primary supplier of images, "consensuses," and provocations? After more than a century of dominance, what might "our" work look like, if the more-than-a-century of UK-US dominance was to end?

What would it mean for us, for all this, to take our perhaps foreordained place as workers in a "minor" tradition? 

When I first moved to NYC, I was continually fascinated by the fact that I only had to walk three blocks or so to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, from which I could see very clearly the river root of Wall Street. Seemed strange and awing, in a way, that my eye could focus, during my evening walks, on the "real" space on the physical location where the cameras of the world framed their "business report" shots. What will happen to my American eye when Wall Street is just another street?

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April 12, 2005 at 1:36 am

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A Fjord-horse to do the farm work

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Pas au-dela does some nice dialectical blogging here and here.

Seems to me that this isn’t just a problem of Naztologia, intentional or unavoidable, but kind of running referendum on modernity as a whole that we each must participate in on a daily basis. The Mercedes brings the tensions to the fore, for sure, and I drive a Volkswagen Jetta Wagon. (Must say that I’m much impressed with the "german engineering" of my people’s car). Almost each and every product line bears traces of the same scent of death. More broadly, almost every innovation, the fruit of almost every episode of progress, is the same. I’ll spare the list, and spare the document of barbarism stuff…

I’ve been spending more time than usual in hospitals of late, taking delivery room tours, doing ultrasounds and the like. And the medical supplies – whose boxes are small masterpieces of a sort of blank design modernity, all "small print" and neologistic brandnames – bear the logos of an all-star squad of twentieth century complicit improvers.

My father took a job for two week with the corporation that made Zyklon B, before heading back to his former employer, a food company then owned by RJ Reynolds tobacco, now owned by Altria (or is Altria owned by them?) I asked him about it recently – it never came up during the interviews.

I myself alternate between Winstons and Marlboros, depending on what’s 3 for the price of 2 at the Korean market around the corner.

That said, I’ve always been unsettled – in the wrong way – by the approach to politics embraced by Adbusters and the like. Seems to me to be an infinitely foreseeable adaptation of left politics to the self-help, self-fulfillment culture that marks the current tidal mark of the American experiment. Marie Antoinette-ism… What the magazine prescribes for its readership is something other than politics, I think. At base, it’s a strange sort of "lifestyle" magazine. It is full of stuff like this, from the current issue…

Here in rural Telemark, Norway, my husband and I have an ancient, 100-acre farm without a road, without electricity, without running water, without a computer or mobile telephone or washing machine or CD player or remote-control carrot-dicer… without corporate products, including Barbie dolls or Nike sneakers. We have a fjord-horse to do most of the heavy farm work (and so on…)

And a subscription to Adbusters, it would seem…

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April 5, 2005 at 1:37 am

Posted in Culture

Berger on Poverty

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Charlotte Street links to a brilliant piece by John Berger on poverty from Open Democracy.

It’s just fantastic. Pretty jaded, have been reading too much, in fact the eyes seem to be starting to go in the way that they will at this point in an academic career. But Berger hits hard, right in the head and heart (whichever order…)

Take this paragraph, near the end:

Here the future’s unique gift is desire. The future
induces the spurt of desire towards itself. The young are more flagrantly young
than on the other side of the wall. The gift appears as a gift of nature in all
its urgency and supreme assurance. Religious and community laws still apply.
Indeed amongst the chaos which is more apparent than real, these laws become
real. Yet the silent desire for procreation is incontestable and overwhelming.
It is the same desire that will forage for food for the children and then seek,
sooner or later, (best sooner) the consolation of fucking again. This is the
future’s gift.

I’m not sure Berger’s not the left writer most worthy of emulation today. That’s what I can’t help but think each time I dip in…. God, the brilliant dictional drop in the second to last sentence. Makes you feel as though you’re reading the word "fuck" again for the first time – or that’s been transfigured somehow into something it hasn’t been nearly forever…

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February 19, 2005 at 1:59 am

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Kinsey (The End of Sex)

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In the car today, was treated to a fantastic interview of Bill Condon, director of the new film about Kinsey, on Terry Gross’s show on NPR. Sounds like a true fellow traveller, this Condon. Kept twisting the knife about Kinsey’s atheism, for instance…

(You can listen to it here: NPR : The Man Behind ‘Kinsey’: Filmmaker Bill Condon.)

But all this Kinsey stuff got me thinking: if Kinsey had gotten his way, liberated humankind from the shackles of religious superstition and cultural prohibition on sex, what would "sex" have been like? Can "sex," and the interest that it holds for us, be separated out from repression? Can good clean fun be fun?  (C.f. the end of the first volume and the start of the second of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, of course…)

(This is one of the central questions that I take on in my work on literature – except it doesn’t have to be sex… Is "interest" inextricably linked to inequality? What sort of art would we have in a perfected world? What sort of literary plots after the "end of history"? Might seem like questions of purely historical import at this point, after the failure of the modernist utopias, but I’m not so sure… Not so sure that we’re not, right here and right now, verging on some sort of bizarre and unexpected tipping point, saturation, terminal equilibrium of interest a la the "heat death" that kept the late Victorians up at night…)

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December 1, 2004 at 12:49 am

Posted in Culture

Ostalgic Everyday

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BrechtReading a back issue of Le Monde Diplomatique (en anglais, s’il vous plait – look here) and came across a terrific article on ostalgie (nostalgia for the GDR). This one a hundred times more considerate and serious about the issue than the other articles I’ve seen on the topic – so check it out.

But what I liked best of all was the last paragraph, which cited a fantastic stanza of a Brecht poem of 1953, "Der Radwechsel."

I am sitting beside the road
The driver is changing a wheel
I don’t like where I am
I don’t like where I am going
Why do I watch the changing of the wheel
With impatience?


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November 22, 2004 at 11:29 pm

Posted in Culture