pulp fiction

The UCSC Emeriti Association has just published its Newsletter 1.3. The UCSCEA newsletter is a much appreciated new feature started by the current President, Professor Todd Wipke, and maintained by volunteers. In this new issue, pages 5–8, Professor Wipke tells the extraordinary story of the secretive, inexplicably rushed, and incomprehensible management decisions—a series of them—that led to the botched selection and outrageous pulping of about 80,000 titles kept by the Science & Engineering Library (=SE Library).

Reading this article and the documents attached to it made me realize how risky and potentially ruinous management decisions have become in the new uncharted waters we find ourselves navigating presently—a public university on its way to privatization, among other things—and how much more important than ever it is to consult widely with faculty and staff. This is true of the series of decisions involving the SE Library as well as those behind the building of new residences by private partnerships. In the case of the SE Library, Wipke’s article makes clear that a major component of the catastrophic decisions was the absence of real consultation of the faculty.

The newsletter article reminded me of my own puzzlement and later shock at discovering in December 2016 that books in the history of ancient technology and historical atlases that I expected to find on the shelves had disappeared. I’ll tell that story in the coming hours. For now, I encourage readers to go to Professor Wipke’s newsletter article cited above.

a political center?

Where is the center in today’s capitalist politics? In yesterday’s NYT, Brooks argued that his own brand of conservatism is the only sane path between the equally nasty chaotic vulgarity of Trumpian associates, and the unrealistic ultra-liberal left. His efforts are symptomatic of the common search for an evanescent “middle.” There would be a way to avoid the two extremes and reach a wise, rational compromise based on community and moral values. Brooks’ position is absurd and naïve if not hypocritical. He defends the humaneness of capitalism and refuses to see that what he holds dear—moral values, care of the neighbor, community—is actually at cross purposes with capitalism and constantly under pressure of being destroyed by it. The greed exhibited by Trump and associates is not particular to them. The values of absolute freedom, infinite expansion of self, and spreading of desires as part of a market-based self-correcting machine—see already Pascal’s view on this in his Thoughts, no need to reach for your Ayn Rand—are actually destructive of trust, fidelity, cooperation, and community. And to equate the right—the extreme right actually—with the left side of the Democratic party makes no sense when the whole system of representation not only has long tilted right but has also become less representative of large urban segments of the population. What is called left wing in the US corresponds to the social democracy of several European countries. In response to the great depression of the thirties and two world wars, these national systems have controlled until now the most nefarious tendencies of capitalism by regulating it and ensuring basic universal systems of family support, education, health, retirement, and low military budgets. They represent a “middle” solution that Brooks sees as ultra left. One would expect his tendency to expound on morals and virtue to lead him to defend family support, a free public education of quality, a universal health system, a higher minimum salary, proper retirement, social security, a more rational use of the military, and environmental change. He doesn’t. The idea of a virtuous, rational middle he never stops peddling is a poor moralistic disguise and an excuse for more disastrous economic or political decisions and further wrecking of the communal and cooperative approach to life he considers most important.

Tillich, not Peterson

The media has made much of a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto who has been taken to task for the perceived conservatism of his ethic and political views. Jordan Peterson’s ideas are built in part on neurological, cognitive theory and in part on a Biblical and Christian message that has been recast in the Jungian mode, as far as I can see. I looked at the site where he advertises his lectures, but was immediately alarmed by the all too quick definitions with which he introduces the stories of Genesis. He sees something primordial in them, reads the gospel of John into them as a long tradition has done before him, and eliminates history. If history is an artificial catalogue of facts and events hanging on a chronological frame, indeed, why take that route, but as good scholars show (beginning with L’Hour 2015), Genesis 1 actually introduces the audience or readership to an open, dynamic history rather than to a mythic structure that helps submit generations to ever-renewed forms of exploitation by hearking back to an idealized past as the only possible future. That is, the author of the text of Genesis is eminently aware of the historical conditions of human existence and tries to formulate answers believed to be revealed or at least adumbrated by an ineffable divinity. In other words, for the author(s) of Genesis 1–11, history and theology are two sides of the same hand. I hope I’m in the spirit of Tillich in saying that. In The socialist decision, published in early 1933 when Hitler grabs power, Tillich writes that “Human life involves more than a mere development of what already is. Through the demand [of the other] humanity is directed to what ought to be.” The first three chapters of Genesis and more generally 1–11 are anti-mythic in that precise sense. Gen 1 is in prose, not verse like all other epics of creation. It opposes the golden repetitions of incantatory myths. It refuses to fix humans as servants of past, immutable greatness. It refuses to MAGA as it refuses fake glories. Rather than looking backward, it invites humans to create the timely order in which life can expand as being and consciousness of it.

Claire et moi

In the sad film Claire et moi, after a sweet meeting with his father about relationship choices, the moi of the story is in a train and reads passages from a book he was just given by his dad. It is the famous passage from Rilke’s Letter to a young poet about what goes into enabling the first line of a verse. Long experience of the world, depths of observation, of scientific inquiry, and complete immersion in the world of others. My take on the story is that passion love, something that was finally considered within the grasp of multitudes with industrialization and fragmentation of traditional kinship and social networks, at least by the mid-twentieth century, comes to be regarded as an insufficient basis for proper relationships. Both characters are passionately drawn to each other and even abandon some of their selfishness by the end of the story. Will they learn to live their whimsical, inventive, physical passion in caring for a gravely ill person (she is HIV positive) and accepting other demanding tasks? A little opening is left at the end, or so it seems to me. I thought that the most important moment in the film was this reading of Rilke’s enduring wisdom in the train. Though I cannot make a grandiose appeal to science, world-traveling experience, life with others, yet his words give expression to something I feel—daily I dare think—, and that is the trust put into the grace of a world lived in all its dimensions, and especially the trust that the articulation of air, gestures, thoughts, will, is part of this adequate world, that it will occur and be communed.

dishwasher

We have entered the twentieth century and bought a dishwasher. I’m surprised by its power consumption. It does take less water than I do when doing dishes by hand and gives a bright shine to the wares. When there are six or more guests at the table, to load the machine is more discreet than to do tons of dishes in full sight of everyone. I cannot think of any other advantage. The machine transforms into a much more complex network of invisible relationships a working moment that had so far remained relatively simple: dishes and silverware washed in a sink, running hot or cold water, all things locally provided and repairable by oneself. But with my new Bosch 500 something, I have become part of a more complicated knotting of myself to the world. I can’t see any time or energy savings. It still strikes me as a luxury object by which I signify to everyone that I’m ready to move away from utilitarian, slightly noisier and messier ways of cleaning my plate, towards a dilatory, invisible purification. We’ll see if it becomes an object of necessity. One thing is sure: doing the dishes cannot be proposed as a choice to children who are reluctant to practice their music instrument. Given the alternative of doing the dishes as being their share of the house chores or practicing music, they might well be tempted to chose the miraculous machine.

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.

Gildas Hamel

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