I continue my desert studies at William Vollmann University, but I took some time away from the VU campus to read a couple of short books, each of which deals with one’s relation to the Other (though in very different ways), which is also Vollmann’s great theme. Last week, I finished reading my first Slavoj Zizek book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, having avoided Zizek up to now because he seemed both too prolific and too trendy. Right after finishing the Zizek, I read Susan Sontag’s long essay, Regarding the Pain of Others. In approaching Sontag over the years, I have often found myself repelled by the coldness of her style & her tendency to argue by assertion. Despite my doubts, both these short books accomplished for me what theory / criticism ought to do — that is, both essays helped me sharpen my own thinking and sense of the world.

The first half of First as Tragedy, Then as Farce presents a flyover of post-9/11 politics & culture in the West — it is what I think would have been called a work of political economy before that term went out of fashion with the rise of economics as a science. Zizek is a fluent, even sprightly, writer who can explain difficult concepts clearly and whose point of view can thus come to feel completely natural to the reader, who, if I am at all typical, adopts the author’s assumptions as if they were his own. This is a very effective rhetoric, if that’s what it is — style as rhetoric — but the reader must be on guard so as to not be swept away on a current of enthusiasm, which, admittedly, can be a pleasant experience, especially with a maestro as charismatic as Zizek.

Two big concepts emerge from Zizek’s essay, which is conveniently divided into two parts: 1. An analysis of the ways in which neo-liberalism & late capitalism effectively subvert & incorporate insurgent political movements. Zizek is particularly interested in the way that movements on the political left suffer this fate, but it would be interesting to see how he’d think about the so-called Tea Party movements on the American right, which will almost certainly be absorbed by the neo-liberal Republican Party. The genius of neo-liberalism is its ability to absorb insurgencies & naturalize them, making them safe for domestic consumption, as it were. 2. A thesis about Human Nature in which the capital letters are appropriate. Zizek sets himself up as a champion of “communism” as a mode of life that depends on the assumption that there is a core set of human values that unites all people across any supposed cultural divides. In this, he directly opposes the position of Theory in all its manifestations over the last thirty years, which has held that human nature is a variable construct. In my view, Zizek’s second thesis consists of a great deal of wishful thinking, but perhaps that is because I have been ensnared by theory. In any case, I have a student who, along with a bunch of Dickens and Tolstoy, has just read The Fountainhead this summer: I have recommended Zizek’s book as an antidote.

Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others came along at just the right moment for me. I have been reading William Vollmann’s big book Imperial, about the California county where my mother was born & where I spent a lot of time growing up & looking, too, at the separate volume Vollmann published, under the same title, of his photographs of people and places in Imperial County. Sontag’s book is an attempt to understand the usefulness of images — photographic images in particular. In this late essay, Sontag revises and even reverses her earlier (more aesthetic?) view of photography as a technology of distancing & comes to an understanding of the photograph – particularly the war photograph — as a necessary, if never sufficient, moral document. The second half of this book strikes me as the epitome of what an intellectual discourse looks like: full of passion & doubt.


I’m about 90% certain I shared a house with this guy in Seattle in 1971. The guy I knew was calling himself Blake (not Dwight) Armstrong & was a good guitar player. He introduced me to some of the old Seattle Wobblies & seemed to know a lot about the Weather Underground, too. (I remember him talking briefly, once, about “self-criticism sessions.” Clearly, he was too much an anarchist to go in for that sort of Maoist groupthink. Liked red wine & marijuana, but then we all did. The photo looks a lot like the person I knew, but I could be wrong. The juice cart / deli detail in the story also makes a connection — my roommate was into health foods long before they became a counter-culture staple. We got along pretty well: played some tennis at the park near the house, hung out a bit, but it was pretty clear he considered me hopelessly bourgeois — loaned me a copy of Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, still an important book in my view. And I wonder what ever happened to Bruce Altman, a mad musician who also shared that house and later, after I was married, slept on my couch for three weeks before I helped him commit himself to an inpatient psychiatric facility. He’d been picking up secret messages from the radio late at night informing him about the impending revolution. Madness picks up the spirit of the times, I guess. My own madnesses were aesthetic & sexual; in other words, I was hopelessly bourgeois. They were friends of my youth & I miss them.

Song: On Hearing That the Obama Administration Intends to Cut the Budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities


The fuck you say?

Two hundred million
(or whatever it is)
won’t keep the Marines
in bullets for a day.

The fuck you say?

The Pentagon won’t
deign to wipe its ass
with anything less
than a couple billion.

The fuck you say?

An ancient master
noted: All things
are empty, true, but
differences still count.

The fuck you say?

One does not use
the emptiness
of a shit scoop
to ladle out the soup.

Attacking the Rationalists

In the winter of 1906-1907, William James delivered a series of lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston on the subject of pragmatism. They were, in many ways, the culmination of a lifetime of work (James would die only two years later) and they also have the virtue of what can only be called voice — one hears William James speaking in these lectures in the most direct way. James writes in his preface that the lectures are “printed as delivered, without development or notes,” making these deeply personal essays into the central theme of James’ battle against the Absolute in philosophy and religion, against Plato and Hegel. In the second lecture, “What Pragmatism Means,” James says:

What do believers in the Absolute mean by saying their belief affords them comfort? They mean that since in the Absolute finite evil is overruled already, we may, therefore, whenever we wish, threat the temporal as if it were potentially the eternal, be sure that we can trust its outcome, and, without sin, dismiss our fear and drop the worry of our finite responsibility. In short, they mean that we have a right ever and anon to take a moral holiday, to let the world wag its own way, feeling that its issues are in better hands than ours and are none of our business.

I find this bracing, even exhilarating. James was never one to let himself off the hook and in this passage he refuses to let us off the hook either. The emphasis on responsibility is characteristic of James’ philosophy and connects in my thinking to Camus and the mid-twentieth-century existentialist philosophers whom James prefigures in many ways. Existence not essence, in James, is experience not essence. I’ve recently been reading Buddhist texts and commentaries and James fits in there as well, but that’s a big subject and I just wanted to make a note of the above paragraph because James has become absolutely central to my view of the world (and my poetics) over the last few months.

Health Care

I always like these occasional features in the NY Times Sunday Magazine about a mysterious medical diagnosis. This account, though, seemed particularly relevant at a time when the country is debating health care reform. [Spoiler alert] The patient, a sixty-four year old woman who is pretty clearly from the working class, loses her ability to walk because of weakness in her legs: she is suffering from a copper deficiency. It turns out that her dentures don’t fit properly and she has been piling on the denture cream, which contains zinc, which reduces the minute amounts of copper needed by the body. At the end of the piece we are informed that, while she “still cannot afford new dentures,” she has switched the brand of denture adhesive she uses and is going to physical therapy, though the nerve damage might me irreversable. So: an aging woman’s false teeth don’t fit and she can’t afford new ones — no insurance, you know — and as a consequence she unknowingly poisons herself and causes severe nerve damage in her legs. Still, in the end, she’s got the same old ill-fitting dentures. No insurance, you know. And the various mouthpieces of the medical-industrial complex and their political defenders are making up shit about a very modest healt care reform proposal creating “death panels” so as to quietly dispose of grandma on the cheap. One would like to ask them what they propose to do for people like the woman in the Times story, since they have such deep concern for the weak and unprotected.