All posts by Gildas Hamel

11 November

The war of 1914–18 was seen from the beginning as a terrible catastrophe, Our father, who was born in 1906, had a vivid memory of how the call came. The bells began to toll at an unheard tempo on the first of August 1914. He was eight. The family was beginning to cut the harvest in the fields surrounding the farm in the Tregor area of Breton-speaking Brittany. The wiki tells me that approximately 3,8 million French reservists were to join about 800 000 soldiers on active duty. He remembered that the unusual tolling of the bells came as they were cutting the grain with sickles and scythes. All work stopped. Then, one of the workers, in an unprecedented gesture, threw his sickle far from him towards an embankment and started to walk home to join his regiment. Tools were highly personalized even though they were to be shared when a task needed to be taken up by someone else. Pitchforks’ handles were shaped by every farmer and journeyman in a special way. The blades of a sickle or a scythe were forged locally, fitted with handles at the smith’s or at home, and sharpened by the worker before any important task by hammering the edge on a small anvil sunk in the hard clay of a barn. Tools were extensions of a person. Throwing one’s sickle was a never seen gesture of great anger at the world as well as a figuration of one’s own absurd death; perhaps also a kind of political demonstration and revulsion before the human autodafe that so many workers saw coming.

compassion in the desert

Politics: the US are more divided than ever after the midterm elections. The election of democratic governors, the turn to the center of suburban women and non-whites, the interest shown by young voters, the inexorable demographic changes, nothing seems to shake us free from the grip that radical right wingers have over rural regions and will be likely to retain for quite a few years. Trump adds to the feeling, as he profits at least psychologically from the disunion and from inflaming even further many white, working-class voters. The vote for democratic representatives of all kinds exceeded the vote for republican ones by more than 7% or 11 million votes. Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, seem to have returned to their democratic sense of direction, but for how long? Will it take a serious economic downturn, conjugated to a foreign crisis, to bring some form of unity? And unity of what kind? On the back of what manufactured enemies? Intellectual work, and especially history of the ancient world, looks like a desperate individual act when faced with this state of affairs. I feel like crawling under a rock.

Yet, the image of my crawling under a rock while the tyrannosauri reges of the world stomp their way over to extinction gives way to landscapes of compassion and humility. Not so timid or foggy landscapes either. All across the land, heroic compassion is at work responding to needs, without recriminations, hurrahs, shouts of victory, flag waving, or claims to have truth on its side. This lived, shared, savvy, crafty empathy finds new, expansive strength over and over again. It becomes the patient, universal answer to the desiccated, warring, egotistic, greedy bands that are raiding the minds, hearts, and pockets of the working and middle classes, while distracting and entertaining them with bile-full bowls of hate and contempt.

humanisme

Les lignes suivantes sont tirées de mon journal de 2007.

A la lecture de quelques textes réfléchissant aux humanités ou plus exactement à ce phénomène américain qu’est le “post-humanisme”, je découvre sur la toile la liste faite par Manuela Rossini de quatre éléments de base de ce post-humanisme de cauchemar:

(1) “Life” does not inevitably depend on being embodied in a biological substrate; i.e. information triumphs over materiality; (2) (self-)consciousness is a relatively recent phenomenon in the evolutionary history of humankind and quite insignificant with regard to human nature and identity; (3) the human body is a prosthesis and can thus be extended and its parts replaced ad infinitum; (4) intelligent machines are the “natural” descendants of homo sapiens.

Quant au 1, il est facile de remarquer qu’une information n’est pas une connaissance. Veut-on réduire ce qu’on a cru être jusqu’ici les conditions d’une connaissance aux conditions d’existence et de flux d’une information sans sujet? Dans cette version de la supériorité du logiciel sur le matériel, on en est encore à la division esprit-corps. Aucun progrès depuis Descartes et plutôt une régression. Basta. Il y aurait aussi un post-humanisme critique ou un méta-post-humanisme. Le vocabulaire lui-même indique dans quel brouillard le projet se meut: critique dans les soubassements des Lumières, sans retour possible à Hegel, mais aussi avec le droit inné à reprendre à nouveaux frais la critique des anciens textes tels que Paul, les évangiles, la Bible, en faisant l’impasse sur quelques siècles de travail. On peut se demander ce que ça donnera.

Il y aurait impossibilité du retour à l’Aufklärung à cause de sa division en espèces, son autoritarisme, etc. Impossibilité aussi du retour à une dichotomie sujet/monde. La solution selon Derrida, Wolfe, Latour (j’imagine?), Haraway, etc., serait de se transformer en membranes, en passages de corps à corps. Mais ceci n’est-il pas une sorte d’incarnation sans respiration, une répétition à l’infini de systèmes d’information qui me paraît être en contradiction avec le fait qu’on tire sa subsistence sinon sa substance de nos salaires, pensions, retraites? Se faire pèlerin—donc décentré—, se dématérialiser pour se faire tout aux autres, sans limite préconçue, puisque la limite ou le sujet vivent dans l’abandon de tout ce qui était illusion de sujet, tout ceci est très ancien. Rossini soutient que dans ce néo-matérialisme,

they [human and non-human bodies] constitute each other through relationality and dynamic interactions.

Il ne se présenterait que du corps et des relations, sans création. Adieu l’ontologie, vive le devenir. Encore une petite note sur la place donnée à la sexualité dans ces réflexions: la jouissance est proposée comme antidote à une société néo-libérale capitaliste qui serait contre la sexualité et pour la reproduction mécanisée, y compris pour l’hétérosexualité. Mais le plaisir n’est-il pas justement l’une des bases de cette société? Investisseurs capitalistes et critiques radicaux paraissent d’accord. D’après ses pratiques financières, la société néo-libérale est contre l’engagement parental, le temps dépensé sans compter auprès des enfants par les mères, pères, éducateurs, etc. Ce temps passé à élever ou à soutenir est bien plus long que celui exigé pour la sexualité. Celle-ci est comptabilisable—du moins d’après les publicités—, alors que le temps donné par exemple aux enfants ne l’est pas: il ne se compte pas, du moins pas encore.

justice and peace

In a recent NYT opinion piece, James Baker III recommends that the US government and power brokers suspend moral qualms and take the middle or balanced path about Saudi Arabia. Neither hard-line realism—embodied by Trump, Kushner, or oil circles that Baker has served for so long—nor hard-line idealism—à la Zola or Péguy in the Dreyfus affair—. Let ethically-coated material interests trump the defense of human life, be it that of Yemenites or Khashoggi. What is needed is to keep a steady balance between geo-political interests and the “promotion of America’s values.” According to Baker, the major issues for which there is this purported need to keep to a steady middle course are “Stabilizing global oil markets, combating terrorism and countering Iranian regional adventurism.” These three issues, however, if considered historically, are one single large issue: the protection of economic interests of a war-bound kingdom and its protector, interests which have long been those of US energy companies and that of an over-militarized government. Stabilizing global oil markets means continuing to impose a military-backed distribution of infrastructure and profits via dollar-based contracts rather than payments in a basket of world currencies. No Iranian pipelines to the Indian ocean or to northern India. Enormous wealth and world peace are at stake. Combating terrorism is pushing back against radical religious organizations like the Muslim Brothers whose goals include a redistribution of wealth in their countries and striking a difficult, dangerous path towards social justice. Countering Iranian regional adventurism is code for a policy of military containment of the whole area that was inherited from the UK in the fifties. It was made worse by the elimination of Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq. The policies defended or tolerated by Baker and others have made things awful for everyone. Appeals to a purportedly shared reasonableness fall on deaf ears today when they come from quarters that helped give shape to the present situation.

The US government’s inclination, under present proto-fascists or earlier, more reasonable leadership, is to continue the customary use of overwhelming force in all areas of life by resuming the development of tactical nuclear weapons and freeing them from any oversight. Alarms were recently sounded by Mikhail Gorbatchev or George Schultz. They beg the US government not to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Will it?

Thinking about these issues and trying to reach something of a “balance” in daily life becomes more and more difficult as I realize how explosive our hopes for justice and dignity can be. Is it possible to live in peace when so many injustices, however distant and repressed, seem to shape one’s being? Peace is often seen as a natural state and an inherited routine. It can become debased as a claim to be left alone. What we need to do, however, is to begin to make peace and seek justice, a costly, difficult, daily task.

supreme justice

The choice of a supreme court justice is proceeding to its foregone conclusion, The senate is about evenly divided on the issue but has a slim majority for Kavanaugh. I regret that the opponents of this particular judge have used a single social issue—sexual violence and his responses to the accusation—to oppose him rather than the broader reason, which is his documented, very conservative partisanship in politics, including the politics of gender and reproduction, and on bread and butter issues. Opposing him on his economic and political views of society would not have carried the day either. On the contrary, more votes, including those of some conservative democrats, would have gone his way. But the needed political reflection and debate on the fundamental issues of economic and social justice would have had at least a chance to continue and unite all citizens of good will instead of being temporarily derailed as secondary.

good boy greed

The confirmation of a hard-right Supreme Court justice didn’t go as well as the eleven male Republican senators of the Judiciary Committee thought it would. The nominee’s impeccable record—from an elite’s point of view—was ruined by a woman’s story about her being abused and nearly raped by him, drunk, thirty-six years ago during a party at someone’s house. The nominee angrily denied all accusations: rape, violence, or heavy drinking. His teary, partisan denunciation was not enough to shake the deep impression made on everyone by the woman, Ms Blakey Ford, a psychology professor now. The nominee would be one of five conservative judges on the highest court in the land. He would be one of two judges under suspicion of having abused women. At stake is not only the sexual abuse of power by men over women, but what it implies more generally, that is, the hypocrisy of a conservatism that claims to defend moral values, when in reality all it wants is to twist and destroy the rule of law and the power of rational government regarding bank regulations, social expenditures, health system, labor rights, response to climate change, regulations on a large number of industries, and replace it with greed…. The accusation made against this nominee cannot be proved, even after the FBI, which has been asked to focus narrowly on this event this coming week, interviews some of the witnesses and provides a report that will not disturb the Republican plan to seat this conservative justice. But its revelatory power regarding the nature of modern politics and economics has been remarkable. It set in plain view the nature of modern capitalism: a greedy, grabbing, drunken, laughing affair that demeans human lives.

twits

Morning Trumpian tweet-tweets about the enormous cost and cancellation of a putative military parade this November. The choice of date, Saturday November 10 rather than Sunday November 11, the day when the WW I armistice was actually signed, parades a lack of respect for history or veterans. Our TV reality star missed a chance to harden his inchoate fascism by responding to the concerns about the expense (90 million dollars?) with a special one-time tax on the rich, get snubbed, and turn to his base for a popular, nationalistic response. Diabolical machinations don’t seem to be a necessary ingredient for the gestation of this new form of fascism. Where are the episode writers? The show is becoming more disjointed by the minute. From Trump to the self-pitying Musk who is running into financial trouble (or his car company, actually, not he, I presume), who knew capitalism could be so given to le spectacle, so far from its dark-frocked, Calvinist, rational, austere origins?

pyramidal schemes

Trump and Putin had their meeting in Helsinki, followed by a circus-like press conference. They looked and sounded like tiny excretive, enduring parts of Stalin’s enormous body, the huge towering figure that hanged a while over global labor and clouds as grasped by Vadim, the alter ego of Leonov in the latter’s last novel The pyramid (1994). Vadim has a glimpse of a meeting held by the providers of “forced happiness:”

[He] was able to peer, despite the egregious difference in height, into a railwaylike building, where a staff meeting was taking place, and the speaker appeared to be lopping off truths with his hand each time a new one arose. (Slezkine, The house of government: a saga of the Russian revolution, 950)

The pyramidal house of socialism has been abandoned. Now Dymkov the circus magician and Shatanitzky the behind-the-scene operator can work together while tossing soccer balls to each other. The House of Government can soon reclaim its old name, the Swamp, a place where you can romp, plan more towers and pipe gas to your kishkes’ content.

merci

This is a comment on today’s NYT article on expression of thanks. In a study of language-based expressions of social reciprocity in eight languages, researchers discovered that requests for help were most often granted but thanks were rarely offered for the help received. I say “language-based,” as there are many ways, immediate or long delayed, to express something that the lexeme “Thanks!” is far from being alone in attempting to denote. I’m most interested in this something, which I follow tradition in calling “grace.”

One day in my childhood in Brittany—I may have been twelve or thirteen?—we were working on piling sheaves of wheat or barley on a cart, I needed a fork (two-tined!), asked my father for it, and said thank you when he passed it along. He stopped for a moment and told me thanking someone you were working with for passing a tool along was not done. I was surprised to discover that his hidden network of values and their expressions conflicted with what I was being taught at school, as I was on vacation from a Catholic boarding seminary. I was even shocked because I knew that my parents were extremely conscious of what they “owed” to their neighbors and extended family. In fact, it took me many years to realize how infinitely complex the sense of reciprocal duties was in the farming community we were in, and how it lived a hidden life, across time boundaries, below the world of social graces you encountered when you put on your Sunday finery or met, awkwardly, the powers that be: teachers, priests, banking officials, your landowner, etc…. It would take many pages to give a proper idea of this world of quietly enforced reciprocity, social status determination, and expectation of grace. This was a community of Breton speakers, with French fast becoming the main language. Breton has a “thank you” as I discovered later when I studied its “modern” form, but it was never used among my kins or neighbors. There was something at work that was more complex, it seems, than say, a surgeon not having to say thank you for every piece of equipment slapped into her expecting hand. More complex or far-ranging also than not expressing verbal thanks to your immediate family and siblings for the expected sharing of common goods or tools (or clothing!).

The presence and advertising of thank yous in US media is at the other extreme of the magic of giving or granting recognition. For each section of interview it makes, for instance, NPR makes sure I can hear the “thank you for coming on my show” and “thank you for having me,” instead of “my pleasure” or “you are welcome,” or clipping those extraneous remarks entirely. It usually cheapens the exchange as its material, economic components (recognition) are at odds with the expression of grace and sound fake and slightly repulsive, especially when the issues discussed are of the essence. BBC on the contrary doesn’t practice this tit for tat that I explain to myself as an intrusion of capitalist rationality in the shrinking world of grace.

Strike at UCSC

Quick bike ride early this morning to the entrance of UCSC to show support for the strike. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) represents 522 employees at UCSC, about 25,000 employees across the UC system: patient care workers, custodians, dining hall employees, building maintenance workers, loop bus drivers, and more. Some of the issues on which UCOP (UC Office of the President) has refused to budge for a year now are: fair wages, decent retirement, health benefits, staffing levels. Please go to Meranze’s and Newfield’s web page (Remaking the University) for detailed information and messages from the unions. UPTE-CWA (University Professional & Technical Employees-Communication Workers of America) and CNA (California Nurses Association) are organizing sympathy strikes for Tuesday and Wednesday 8-9 May. The strike continues tomorrow, starting at 4am. See you there.

AFSCME strike
AFSCME strike at main entrance of UCSC campus, Monday, May 7, 2018