Sunshine Recorder

Link: "In Praise of Idleness" by Bertrand Russell

Like most of my generation, I was brought up on the saying: ‘Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do.’ Being a highly virtuous child, I believed all that I was told, and acquired a conscience which has kept me working hard down to the present moment. But although my conscience has controlled my actions, my opinions have undergone a revolution. I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached. Everyone knows the story of the traveler in Naples who saw twelve beggars lying in the sun (it was before the days of Mussolini), and offered a lira to the laziest of them. Eleven of them jumped up to claim it, so he gave it to the twelfth. this traveler was on the right lines. But in countries which do not enjoy Mediterranean sunshine idleness is more difficult, and a great public propaganda will be required to inaugurate it. I hope that, after reading the following pages, the leaders of the YMCA will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Before advancing my own arguments for laziness, I must dispose of one which I cannot accept. Whenever a person who already has enough to live on proposes to engage in some everyday kind of job, such as school-teaching or typing, he or she is told that such conduct takes the bread out of other people’s mouths, and is therefore wicked. If this argument were valid, it would only be necessary for us all to be idle in order that we should all have our mouths full of bread. What people who say such things forget is that what a man earns he usually spends, and in spending he gives employment. As long as a man spends his income, he puts just as much bread into people’s mouths in spending as he takes out of other people’s mouths in earning. The real villain, from this point of view, is the man who saves. If he merely puts his savings in a stocking, like the proverbial French peasant, it is obvious that they do not give employment. If he invests his savings, the matter is less obvious, and different cases arise.

One of the commonest things to do with savings is to lend them to some Government. In view of the fact that the bulk of the public expenditure of most civilized Governments consists in payment for past wars or preparation for future wars, the man who lends his money to a Government is in the same position as the bad men in Shakespeare who hire murderers. The net result of the man’s economical habits is to increase the armed forces of the State to which he lends his savings. Obviously it would be better if he spent the money, even if he spent it in drink or gambling.

But, I shall be told, the case is quite different when savings are invested in industrial enterprises. When such enterprises succeed, and produce something useful, this may be conceded. In these days, however, no one will deny that most enterprises fail. That means that a large amount of human labor, which might have been devoted to producing something that could be enjoyed, was expended on producing machines which, when produced, lay idle and did no good to anyone. The man who invests his savings in a concern that goes bankrupt is therefore injuring others as well as himself. If he spent his money, say, in giving parties for his friends, they (we may hope) would get pleasure, and so would all those upon whom he spent money, such as the butcher, the baker, and the bootlegger. But if he spends it (let us say) upon laying down rails for surface card in some place where surface cars turn out not to be wanted, he has diverted a mass of labor into channels where it gives pleasure to no one. Nevertheless, when he becomes poor through failure of his investment he will be regarded as a victim of undeserved misfortune, whereas the gay spendthrift, who has spent his money philanthropically, will be despised as a fool and a frivolous person.

All this is only preliminary. I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.

First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.

Throughout Europe, though not in America, there is a third class of men, more respected than either of the classes of workers. There are men who, through ownership of land, are able to make others pay for the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work. These landowners are idle, and I might therefore be expected to praise them. Unfortunately, their idleness is only rendered possible by the industry of others; indeed their desire for comfortable idleness is historically the source of the whole gospel of work. The last thing they have ever wished is that others should follow their example.

From the beginning of civilization until the Industrial Revolution, a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family, although his wife worked at least as hard as he did, and his children added their labor as soon as they were old enough to do so. The small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by warriors and priests. In times of famine there was no surplus; the warriors and priests, however, still secured as much as at other times, with the result that many of the workers died of hunger. This system persisted in Russia until 1917 [1], and still persists in the East; in England, in spite of the Industrial Revolution, it remained in full force throughout the Napoleonic wars, and until a hundred years ago, when the new class of manufacturers acquired power. In America, the system came to an end with the Revolution, except in the South, where it persisted until the Civil War. A system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impress upon men’s thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system, and, being pre-industrial, is not adapted to the modern world. Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.

It is obvious that, in primitive communities, peasants, left to themselves, would not have parted with the slender surplus upon which the warriors and priests subsisted, but would have either produced less or consumed more. At first, sheer force compelled them to produce and part with the surplus. Gradually, however, it was found possible to induce many of them to accept an ethic according to which it was their duty to work hard, although part of their work went to support others in idleness. By this means the amount of compulsion required was lessened, and the expenses of government were diminished. To this day, 99 per cent of British wage-earners would be genuinely shocked if it were proposed that the King should not have a larger income than a working man. The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own. Of course the holders of power conceal this fact from themselves by managing to believe that their interests are identical with the larger interests of humanity. Sometimes this is true; Athenian slave-owners, for instance, employed part of their leisure in making a permanent contribution to civilization which would have been impossible under a just economic system. Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labors of the many. But their labors were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And with modern technique it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.

Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war. At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or Government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since. The significance of this fact was concealed by finance: borrowing made it appear as if the future was nourishing the present. But that, of course, would have been impossible; a man cannot eat a loaf of bread that does not yet exist. The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.

This is the morality of the Slave State, applied in circumstances totally unlike those in which it arose. No wonder the result has been disastrous. Let us take an illustration. Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

(Source: sunrec)

Link: Tony Judt: What Have We Learned, If Anything?

Far from escaping the twentieth century, we need to go back and look a bit more carefully. We need to learn again—or perhaps for the first time—how war brutalizes and degrades winners and losers alike and what happens to us when, having heedlessly waged war for no good reason, we are encouraged to inflate and demonize our enemies in order to justify that war’s indefinite continuance.

The twentieth century is hardly behind us but already its quarrels and its achievements, its ideals and its fears are slipping into the obscurity of mis-memory. In the West we have made haste to dispense whenever possible with the economic, intellectual, and institutional baggage of the twentieth century and encouraged others to do likewise. In the wake of 1989, with boundless confidence and insufficient reflection, we put the twentieth century behind us and strode boldly into its successor swaddled in self-serving half-truths: the triumph of the West, the end of History, the unipolar American moment, the ineluctable march of globalization and the free market.

The belief that that was then and this is now embraced much more than just the defunct dogmas andinstitutions of cold war–era communism. During the Nineties, and again in the wake of September 11, 2001, I was struck more than once by a perverse contemporary insistence on not understanding the context of our present dilemmas, at home and abroad; on not listening with greater care to some of the wiser heads of earlier decades; on seeking actively to forget rather than remember, to deny continuity and proclaim novelty on every possible occasion. We have become stridently insistent that the past has little of interest to teach us. Ours, we assert, is a new world; its risks and opportunities are without precedent.

Perhaps this is not surprising. The recent past is the hardest to know and understand. Moreover, the world really has undergone a remarkable transformation since 1989 and such transformations are always unsettling for those who remember how things were before. In the decades following the French Revolution, the douceur de vivre of the vanished ancien régime was much regretted by older commentators. A century later, evocations and memoirs of pre–Word War I Europe typically depicted (and still depict) a lost civilization, a world whose illusions had quite literally been blown apart: “Never such innocence again.”

But there is a difference. Contemporaries might have regretted the world before the French Revolution. But they had not forgotten it. For much of the nineteenth century Europeans remained obsessed with the causes and meaning of the upheavals that began in 1789. The political and philosophical debates of the Enlightenment had not been consumed in the fires of revolution. On the contrary, the Revolution and its consequences were widely attributed to that same Enlightenment which thus emerged—for friend and foe alike—as the acknowledged source of the political dogmas and social programs of the century that followed.

In a similar vein, while everyone after 1918 agreed that things would never be the same again, the particular shape that a postwar world should take was everywhere conceived and contested in the long shadow of nineteenth-century experience and thought. Neoclassical economics, liberalism, Marxism (and its Communist stepchild), “revolution,” the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, imperialism, and “industrialism”—the building blocks of the twentieth-century political world—were all nineteenth-century artifacts. Even those who, along with Virginia Woolf, believed that “on or about December 1910, human character changed”—that the cultural upheaval of Europe’s fin de siècle had utterly transformed the terms of intellectual exchange—nonetheless devoted a surprising amount of energy to shadowboxing with their predecessors. The past hung heavy across the present.

(Source: sunrec)

Link: "The Nothingness of Personality" by Jorge Luis Borges

Intention.

I want to tear down the exceptional preeminence now generally awarded to the self, and I pledge to be spurred on by concrete certainty, and not the caprice of an ideological ambush or a dazzling intellectual prank. I propose to prove that personality is a mirage maintained by conceit and custom, without metaphysical foundation or visceral reality. I want to apply to literature the consequences that issue from these premises, and erect upon them an aesthetic hostile to the psychologism inherited from the last century, sympathetic to the classics, yet encouraging to today’s most unruly tendencies.

Course of action.

I have noticed that, in general, the acquiescence conceded by a man in the role of reader to a rigorous dialectical linkage is no more than a slothful inability to gauge the proofs the writer adduces and a vague trust in the latter’s rectitude. But once the book has been closed and the reading has dispersed, little remains in his memory except a more or less arbitrary synthesis of the whole reading. To avoid this evident disadvantaged, I will, in the following paragraphs, cast aside all strict and logical schemas, and amass a pile of examples.

There is no whole self. Any of life’s present situations is seamless and sufficient. Are you, as you ponder these disquietudes, anything more than an indifference gliding over the argument I make, or an appraisal of the opinions I expound?

I, as I write this, am only a certainty that seeks out the words that are most apt to compel your attention. The proposition and a few muscular sensations, and the sight of the limpid branches that the trees place outside my window, constitute my current I.

It would be vanity to suppose that in order to enjoy absolute validity this psychic aggregate must seize on a self, that conjectural Jorge Luis Borges on whose tongue sophistries are always at the ready and in whose solitary strolls the evenings on the fringes of the city are pleasant.

There is no whole self. He who defines personal identity as the private possession of some depository of memories is mistaken. Whoever affirms such a thing is abusing the symbol that solidifies memory in the form of an enduring and tangible granary or warehouse, when memory is no more than the noun by which we imply that among the innumerable possible states of consciousness, many occur again in an imprecise way. Moreover, if I root personality in remembrance, what claim of ownership can be made on the elapsed instants that, because they were quotidian or stale, did not stamp us with a lasting mark? Heaped up over years, they lie buried, inaccessible to our avid longing. And that much-vaunted memory to whose ruling you made appeal, does it ever manifest all its past plenitude? Does it truly live? The sensualists and their ilk, who conceive of your personality as the sum of your successive states of mind, are similarly deceiving themselves. On closer scrutiny, their formula is no more than an ignominious circumlocution that undermines the very foundation it constructs, an acid that eats away at itself, a prattling fraud and a belabored contradiction.

No one will pretend that, in the glance by which we take in a limpid night, the exact number of visible stars is prefigured.

 No one, on thinking about it, will accept that the self can depend on the hypothetical and never realized nor realizable sum of different states of mind. What is not carried out does not exist; the linkage of events in a temporal succession does not refer to an absolute order. They err, as well, who suppose that the negation of personality I am urging with such obstinate zealotry refutes the certainty of being the isolated, individualized, and distinct thing that each of us feels in the depths of his soul. I do not deny this consciousness of being, nor the immediate security of here I am that it breathes into us. What I do deny is that all our other convictions must be adjusted to the customary antithesis between the self and the non-self, and that this antithesis is constant. The sensation of cold, of spacious and pleasurable suppleness, that is in me as I open the front door and go out along the half-darkness of the street is neither a supplement to a pre-existing self nor an event that comes coupled to the other event of a continuing and rigorous self. 

Moreover, even if the aforementioned reasons are misguided, I would refuse to surrender, for your conviction of being an individuality is in all ways identical to mine and to that of any human specimen, and there is no way to separate them. 

There is no whole self. It suffices to walk any distance along the inexorable rigidity that the mirrors of the past open to us in order to feel like outsiders, naively flustered by our own bygone days. There is no community of intention in them, nor are they propelled by the same breeze. This has been declared by those men who have truly scrutinized the calendars from which time was discarding them. Some, extravagant as fireworks, make a boast of so muddled a confusion and say that disparity is wealth; others, far from glorifying disorder, deplore the inequality of their days and yearn for the popular uniformity. I will copy out two examples. The first bears the date 1531; it is the epigraph to De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientiarum, composed by the Kabbalist and astrologer Agrippa of Nettesheim in the disillusioned latter days of his life. He says:

“Among gods, all are shaken by the jeers of Momus.
Among heroes, Hercules gives chase to all the monsters.
Among demons, Pluto, the King of Hell, oppresses all the shades.
While Heraclitus weeps at everything,
Pyrrho knows naught of anything,
And Aristotle glories in knowing all.
Diogenes spurns the things of this world,
And I, Agrippa, am foreign to none of this.
I disdain, I know, I do not know, I pursue, I laugh, I tyrannize, I protest.
I am philosopher, god, hero, demon and the whole universe.”

The second testimonial comes from the third part of Torres Villarroel’s Vida e Historia. This systematizer of Quevedo, learned in astrology, lord and master of all words, expert wielder of the most strident rhetorical figures, also sought to define himself and probed his fundamental incongruence. He saw that he was like everyone else: that is, that he was no one, or little more than an unintelligible cacophony, persisting in time and wearing out in space. He wrote:

“I am angry, fearful, compassionate, joyous, sad, greedy, generous, enraged, meek, and all the good and bad emotions and all the praiseworthy and reprehensible actions that can be found in all men together or separately. I have tried out all the vices and all the virtues, and in a single day I feel inclined to weep and laugh, give and keep, repose and suffer, and I am always unaware of the cause and the momentum of these contrarieties. I have heard this alternative of contrary impulses called madness; if it be so, we are all mad to a greater or lesser degree for I have noticed this unforeseen and repeated alternation in everyone.”






The Red and the Black
Profit is the motor of capitalism. What would it be under socialism? // The latest essay from Seth Ackerman discussing the economics of feasible socialism.
Radicals have a habit of speaking in the conditional. Underlying all their talk about the changes they’d like to see in the world is the uneasy knowledge that our social system places rigid limits on how much change can be accomplished now. “After the revolution…” is the wistful, ironic preface to many a fondly expressed wish on the Left.
Why, then, are radicals so hesitant to talk about what a different system might look like? One of the oldest and most influential objections to such talk comes from Marx, with his oft-quoted scorn toward utopian “recipes” for the “cookshops of the future.” The moral of the quote, supposedly, is that a future society must emerge from the spontaneous dynamics of history, not from the isolated imaginings of some scribbler. This isn’t without some irony, since two years later Marx the scribbler wrote his own little cookshop recipe in his Critique of the Gotha Program — it involved labor tokens, storehouses of goods, and an accounting system to determine how much workers would get paid.
As it happens, Marx’s comment was a riposte to a negative review he’d received in a Paris newspaper run by devotees of the philosopher Auguste Comte, criticizing Marx for offering no concrete alternative to the social system he condemned. (That’s why, in the original quote, he asks wryly if the recipes the reviewers had hoped to see happened to be “Comtist” ones.) To grasp the context, you have to understand that like many utopian writers of the era, Comte proffered scenarios for a future society that were marked by an almost deranged grandiosity, featuring precise and fantastically detailed instructions on practically every facet of daily life. It was this obsessive kind of future-painting that Marx was really taking aim at.
A related cause for reticence is the feeling that to spell out ideas for future social institutions amounts to a sort of technocratic elitism that stifles the utopian élan of the people-in-motion. Great social change never happens without multitudes becoming inspired to heroic acts of enthusiasm, and patient attempts to grapple realistically with the material problems of a functioning society are rarely so inspiring. This is by no means a trivial objection; one of the oldest fallacies on the Left is the illusion that change happens when someone comes along with a brilliant ten-point plan and manages to convince everyone of its genius.
Still, a successful radical project has to appeal to every emotional register: not just those ecstatic moments when history opens up and everything seems possible, but also those pensive and critical moods when even inveterate optimists-of-the-will find doubt and reflection taking over. Even a struggle as epic and impassioned as the movement for the eight-hour day – which “seemed one of the most striking utopias of revolutionary socialism” at the time, as Elie Halévy remembered – was, in the end, about a bureaucratic measure, enforced by legal directives and factory inspectors.
Maybe the most fundamental reason the Left has been suspicious of such visions is that they have so often been presented as historical endpoints – and endpoints will always be disappointing. The notion that history will reach some final destination where social conflict will disappear and politics come to a close has been a misguided fantasy on the Left since its genesis. Scenarios for the future must never be thought of as final, or even irreversible; rather than regard them as blueprints for some future destination, it would be better to see them simply as maps sketching possible routes out of a maze. Once we exit the labyrinth, it’s up to us to decide what to do next.
In this essay, I start from the common socialist assumption that capitalism’s central defects arise from the conflict between the pursuit of private profit and the satisfaction of human needs. Then I sketch some of the considerations that would have to be taken into account in any attempt to remedy those defects.
What I’m not concerned with here is achieving some final and total harmony between the interests of each and the interests of all, or with cleansing humanity of conflict or egotism. I seek the shortest possible step from the society we have now to a society where most productive property is owned in common – not in order to rule out more radical change, but precisely in order to rule it in.
There is nothing wrong with thinking concretely and practically about how we can free ourselves from social institutions that place such confining limits on the kind of society we are able to have. Because of one thing we can be certain: the present system will either be replaced or it will go on forever.
But what about the other alternative? Why not a centrally planned economy where the job of economic calculation is handed over to information-gathering experts — democratically accountable ones, hopefully. We actually have historical examples of this kind of system, though of course they were far from democratic. Centrally planned economies registered some accomplishments: when Communism came to poor, rural countries like Bulgaria or Romania they were able to industrialize quickly, wipe out illiteracy, raise education levels, modernize gender roles, and eventually ensure that most people had basic housing and health care. The system could also raise per capita production pretty quickly from, say, the level of today’s Laos to that of today’s Bosnia; or from the level of Yemen to that of Egypt.
But beyond that, the system ran into trouble. Here a prefatory note is in order: Because the neoliberal Right has habit of measuring a society’s success by the abundance of its consumer goods, the radical left is prone to slip into a posture of denying this sort of thing is politically relevant at all. This is a mistake. The problem with full supermarket shelves is that they’re not enough— not that they’re unwelcome or trivial. The citizens of Communist countries experienced the paucity, shoddiness and uniformity of their goods not merely as inconveniences; they experienced them as violations of their basic rights. As an anthropologist of Communist Hungary writes, “goods of state-socialist production…came to be seen as evidence of the failure of a state-socialist-generated modernity, but more importantly, of the regime’s negligent and even ‘inhumane’ treatment of its subjects.”
In fact, the shabbiness of consumer supply was popularly felt as a betrayal of the humanistic mission of socialism itself. A historian of East Germanyquotes the petitions that ordinary consumers addressed to the state: “It really is not in the spirit of the human being as the center of socialist society when I have to save up for years for a Trabant and then cannot use my car for more than a year because of a shortage of spare parts!” said one. Another wrote: “When you read in the socialist press ‘maximal satisfaction of the needs of the people and so on’ and … ‘everything for the benefit of the people,’ it makes me feel sick.” In different countries and languages across Eastern Europe, citizens used almost identical expressions to evoke the image of substandard goods being “thrown at” them.
Items that became unavailable in Hungary at various times due to planning failures included “the kitchen tool used to make Hungarian noodles,” “bath plugs that fit tubs in stock; cosmetics shelves; and the metal box necessary for electrical wiring in new apartment buildings.” As a local newspaper editorial complained in the 1960s, these things “don’t seem important until the moment one needs them, and suddenly they are very important!”
And at an aggregate level, the best estimates show the Communist countries steadily falling behind Western Europe: East German per capita income, which had been slightly higher than that of West German regions before World War II, never recovered in relative terms from the postwar occupation years and continually lost ground from 1960 onwards. By the late 1980s it stood at less than 40% of the West German level.
Unlike an imaginary economy with no states or markets, the Communist economies did have an economic calculation mechanism. It just didn’t work as advertised. What was the problem?

The Red and the Black

Profit is the motor of capitalism. What would it be under socialism? // The latest essay from Seth Ackerman discussing the economics of feasible socialism.

Radicals have a habit of speaking in the conditional. Underlying all their talk about the changes they’d like to see in the world is the uneasy knowledge that our social system places rigid limits on how much change can be accomplished now. “After the revolution…” is the wistful, ironic preface to many a fondly expressed wish on the Left.

Why, then, are radicals so hesitant to talk about what a different system might look like? One of the oldest and most influential objections to such talk comes from Marx, with his oft-quoted scorn toward utopian “recipes” for the “cookshops of the future.” The moral of the quote, supposedly, is that a future society must emerge from the spontaneous dynamics of history, not from the isolated imaginings of some scribbler. This isn’t without some irony, since two years later Marx the scribbler wrote his own little cookshop recipe in his Critique of the Gotha Program — it involved labor tokens, storehouses of goods, and an accounting system to determine how much workers would get paid.

As it happens, Marx’s comment was a riposte to a negative review he’d received in a Paris newspaper run by devotees of the philosopher Auguste Comte, criticizing Marx for offering no concrete alternative to the social system he condemned. (That’s why, in the original quote, he asks wryly if the recipes the reviewers had hoped to see happened to be “Comtist” ones.) To grasp the context, you have to understand that like many utopian writers of the era, Comte proffered scenarios for a future society that were marked by an almost deranged grandiosity, featuring precise and fantastically detailed instructions on practically every facet of daily life. It was this obsessive kind of future-painting that Marx was really taking aim at.

A related cause for reticence is the feeling that to spell out ideas for future social institutions amounts to a sort of technocratic elitism that stifles the utopian élan of the people-in-motion. Great social change never happens without multitudes becoming inspired to heroic acts of enthusiasm, and patient attempts to grapple realistically with the material problems of a functioning society are rarely so inspiring. This is by no means a trivial objection; one of the oldest fallacies on the Left is the illusion that change happens when someone comes along with a brilliant ten-point plan and manages to convince everyone of its genius.

Still, a successful radical project has to appeal to every emotional register: not just those ecstatic moments when history opens up and everything seems possible, but also those pensive and critical moods when even inveterate optimists-of-the-will find doubt and reflection taking over. Even a struggle as epic and impassioned as the movement for the eight-hour day – which “seemed one of the most striking utopias of revolutionary socialism” at the time, as Elie Halévy remembered – was, in the end, about a bureaucratic measure, enforced by legal directives and factory inspectors.

Maybe the most fundamental reason the Left has been suspicious of such visions is that they have so often been presented as historical endpoints – and endpoints will always be disappointing. The notion that history will reach some final destination where social conflict will disappear and politics come to a close has been a misguided fantasy on the Left since its genesis. Scenarios for the future must never be thought of as final, or even irreversible; rather than regard them as blueprints for some future destination, it would be better to see them simply as maps sketching possible routes out of a maze. Once we exit the labyrinth, it’s up to us to decide what to do next.

In this essay, I start from the common socialist assumption that capitalism’s central defects arise from the conflict between the pursuit of private profit and the satisfaction of human needs. Then I sketch some of the considerations that would have to be taken into account in any attempt to remedy those defects.

What I’m not concerned with here is achieving some final and total harmony between the interests of each and the interests of all, or with cleansing humanity of conflict or egotism. I seek the shortest possible step from the society we have now to a society where most productive property is owned in common – not in order to rule out more radical change, but precisely in order to rule it in.

There is nothing wrong with thinking concretely and practically about how we can free ourselves from social institutions that place such confining limits on the kind of society we are able to have. Because of one thing we can be certain: the present system will either be replaced or it will go on forever.

But what about the other alternative? Why not a centrally planned economy where the job of economic calculation is handed over to information-gathering experts — democratically accountable ones, hopefully. We actually have historical examples of this kind of system, though of course they were far from democratic. Centrally planned economies registered some accomplishments: when Communism came to poor, rural countries like Bulgaria or Romania they were able to industrialize quickly, wipe out illiteracy, raise education levels, modernize gender roles, and eventually ensure that most people had basic housing and health care. The system could also raise per capita production pretty quickly from, say, the level of today’s Laos to that of today’s Bosnia; or from the level of Yemen to that of Egypt.

But beyond that, the system ran into trouble. Here a prefatory note is in order: Because the neoliberal Right has habit of measuring a society’s success by the abundance of its consumer goods, the radical left is prone to slip into a posture of denying this sort of thing is politically relevant at all. This is a mistake. The problem with full supermarket shelves is that they’re not enough— not that they’re unwelcome or trivial. The citizens of Communist countries experienced the paucity, shoddiness and uniformity of their goods not merely as inconveniences; they experienced them as violations of their basic rights. As an anthropologist of Communist Hungary writes, “goods of state-socialist production…came to be seen as evidence of the failure of a state-socialist-generated modernity, but more importantly, of the regime’s negligent and even ‘inhumane’ treatment of its subjects.”

In fact, the shabbiness of consumer supply was popularly felt as a betrayal of the humanistic mission of socialism itself. A historian of East Germanyquotes the petitions that ordinary consumers addressed to the state: “It really is not in the spirit of the human being as the center of socialist society when I have to save up for years for a Trabant and then cannot use my car for more than a year because of a shortage of spare parts!” said one. Another wrote: “When you read in the socialist press ‘maximal satisfaction of the needs of the people and so on’ and … ‘everything for the benefit of the people,’ it makes me feel sick.” In different countries and languages across Eastern Europe, citizens used almost identical expressions to evoke the image of substandard goods being “thrown at” them.

Items that became unavailable in Hungary at various times due to planning failures included “the kitchen tool used to make Hungarian noodles,” “bath plugs that fit tubs in stock; cosmetics shelves; and the metal box necessary for electrical wiring in new apartment buildings.” As a local newspaper editorial complained in the 1960s, these things “don’t seem important until the moment one needs them, and suddenly they are very important!”

And at an aggregate level, the best estimates show the Communist countries steadily falling behind Western Europe: East German per capita income, which had been slightly higher than that of West German regions before World War II, never recovered in relative terms from the postwar occupation years and continually lost ground from 1960 onwards. By the late 1980s it stood at less than 40% of the West German level.

Unlike an imaginary economy with no states or markets, the Communist economies did have an economic calculation mechanism. It just didn’t work as advertised. What was the problem?

Link: 1922: Why I Quit Being So Accommodating

A very odd essay from a 1922 issue of The American Magazine that seems to go against the general grain of most of the articles published then. There is also no name attached to it.  

This is the story of a man who found out what it was costing him, his family, and his business career,  to let himself be a universal Good Fellow, at the beck of and call of every Tom, Dick and Harry who wanted him to do a favour.

Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of my retirement from the business of being a Good Fellow. I use the word “business” advisedly. Until five years ago, if the city directory had told the truth, it would have listed after my name, as my real occupation, something like, “General Attender to Things,” or “Pinch Hitter,” or “Fine Old Scout.” I hope I am entitled in some measure to these designations even to-day. But I have quit being an accommodator and nothing else.

Five years ago yesterday it was, at two o’clock in the morning; I am not likely to forget the place or the hour. From four-thirty, when the president of our company and I faced each other across his desk, until eleven-thirty, when I left him at his door, we fought the thing back and forth. From eleven-thirty until two o’clock I spent in a bitter ordeal of self-examination.

“You are thirty-five years old,” I said to myself. “More than half of your life has already been spent. Who is living your life, anyway? Is it actually yours? Or is it a kind of public storehouse of odd jobs? A pile of days and hours put on the counter of the world with a sign inviting every Tom, Dick, and Harry to take one?”

It was in that solemn morning hour, as I have said, that I formally retired from the business of being Everybody’s Friend. For weeks I had to school myself in the hard business of saying “No.” But five years have made the cure almost complete.

Surely, if life means anything at all, it means that each of us is entrusted with a certain irreplaceable fund of hours and weeks and years. To let anybody and everybody fritter that fund away is as if the trustee of an estate were to deposit the estate’s funds in a bank and issue check books to whoever applied.

Some of us are born good-natured, some acquire good-nature, and some have good-nature thrust upon us. I belong to the third class. My father ran a small-town drug store. A bald, worried little man, perpetually tired but perpetually smiling — nodding his head and murmuring, “Right away, Mrs. Jones; we’ll have it up right away!’ And, “No trouble! not the slightest trouble in the world!”

Why is it that everybody imposes upon the hapless proprietor of a drug store? No one ever runs into a butcher shop, and asks, “Would you mind watching Willie until I come back?” No one, expects a hardware merchant to carry two-cent stamps, or grumbles at him, because he happens to be out of postal cards on Sunday afternoons. No one rings excitedly at the front door of the feed merchant and pulls him out of bed at two o’clock for some trivial purchase that might just as easily have been made before the store closed in the evening.

But there is absolutely nothing that people will not ask and expect a druggist to do. My father had a competitor across the street and one block down. Our whole lives were passed in fear of what that competitor was doing or might do. Lest heshould gain some advantage, it was impressed upon us that we must go the limit in being accommodating.

It goes without saying that Father belonged to every lodge and society in town. His name was on every subscription list. With all his twelve or fifteen hours of work a day, our family finances were never a nickel ahead. And yet, in all the years, I can remember my mother protesting only once.

Link: Norman Mailer: The White Negro

Probably, we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the 15 atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years. For the first time in civilized history, perhaps for the first time in all of history, we have been forced to live with the suppressed knowledge that … we might still be doomed to die as a cipher in some vast statistical operation in which our teeth would be counted, and our hair would be saved, but our death itself would be unknown, unhonored, and unremarked, a death which could not follow with dignity as a possible consequence to serious actions we had chosen, but rather a death by deus ex machina in a gas chamber or a radioactive city; and so if in the midst of civilization … founded upon the … urge to dominate nature by mastering time, mastering the links of social cause and effect—in the middle of an economic civilization founded upon the confidence that time could indeed he subjected to our will, our psyche was subjected itself to the intolerable anxiety that death being causeless, life was causeless as well, and time deprived of cause and effect had come to a stop.

The Second World War presented a mirror to the human condition which blinded anyone who looked into it. For if tens of millions were killed in concentration camps out of the inexorable agonies and contractions of super-states founded upon the always insoluble contradictions of injustice, one was then obliged also to see that no matter how crippled and perverted an image of man was, the society he had created, it was nonetheless his creation … and if society was so murderous, then who could ignore the most hideous of questions about his own nature?

Worse. One could hardly maintain the courage to be individual, to speak with one’s own voice, for the years in which one could complacently accept oneself as part of an elite by being a radical were forever gone. A man knew that when he dissented, he gave a note upon his life which could be called in any year of overt crisis. No wonder then that these have been the years of conformity and depression. A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve. The only courage, with rare exceptions, that we have been witness to, has been the isolated courage of isolated people. It is on this bleak scene that a phenomenon has appeared: the American existentialist—the hipster, the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war … or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled (at what damage to the 45 mind and the heart and the liver and the nerves no research foundation for cancer will discover in a hurry) , if the fate of twentieth century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self … The unstated essence of Hip, its psychopathic brilliance, quivers with the knowledge that new kinds of victories increase one’s power for new kinds of perception; and defeats, the wrong kind of defeats, attack the body and imprison one’s energy until one is jailed in the prison air of other people’s habits, other people’s defeats, boredom, quiet desperation, and muted icy self-destroying rage. One is Hip or one is Square (the alternative which each new generation coming into American life is beginning to feel) one is a rebel or one conforms, one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell … doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.

A totalitarian society makes enormous demands on the courage of men, and a partially totalitarian society makes even greater demands for the general anxiety is greater. Indeed if one is to be a man, 60 almost any kind of unconventional action often takes disproportionate courage. So it is no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries. But the presence of Hip as a working philosophy in the sub-worlds of American life is probably due to jazz, and its knife-like entrance into culture, its subtle but so penetrating influence on an avant-garde generation—that post-war generation of adventurers who … had absorbed the lessons of disillusionment and disgust of the Twenties, the Depression, and the War. Sharing a collective disbelief in the words of men who had too much money and controlled too many things, they knew almost as powerful a disbelief in the socially monolithic ideas of the single mate, the solid family and the respectable love life … 

So no wonder that in certain cities of America, in New York of course, and New Orleans, in Chicago and San Francisco and Los Angeles … this particular part of a generation was attracted to what the Negro had to offer. In such places as Greenwich Village … the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share: at least all who were Hip. And in this wedding of the white and the black it was the 75 Negro who brought the cultural dowry. Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. The cameos of security for the average white: mother and the home, job and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible. The Negro has the simplest of alternatives: live a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger. In such a pass where paranoia is as vital to survival as blood, the Negro had stayed alive and begun to grow by following the need of his body where he could. Knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence … [f]or jazz … spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond, it was indeed a communication by art because it said, “I feel this, and now you do too.”

So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro. 

Link: Biafra: A People Betrayed

Kurt Vonnegut’s essay about his visit to the republic of Biafra at the tail-end of its three-year existence.

There is a “Kingdom of Biafra” on some old maps which were made by early white explorers of the west coast of Africa. Nobody is now sure what that kingdom was, what its laws and arts and tools were like. No tales survive of the kings and queens.

As for the “Republic of Biafra” we know a great deal. It was a nation with more citizens than Ireland and Norway combined. It proclaimed itself an independent republic on May 30, 1967. On January 17 of 1970, it surrendered unconditionally to Nigeria, the nation from which it had tried to secede. It had few friends in this world, and among its active enemies were Russia and Great Britain. Its enemies were pleased to call it a “tribe.”

Some tribe.

The Biafrans were mainly Christians and they spoke English melodiously, and their economy was this one: small-town free enterprise. The worthless Biafran currency was gravely honored to the end.

The tune of Biafra’s national anthem was Finlandia, by Jan Sibelius. The equatorial Biafrans admired the arctic Finns because the Finns won and kept their freedom in spite of ghastly odds.

Biafra lost its freedom, of course, and I was in the middle of it as all its fronts were collapsing. I flew in from Gabon on the night of January 3, with bags of corn, beans, and powdered milk, aboard a blacked out DC6 chartered by Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief organization. I flew out six nights later on an empty DC4 chartered by the French Red Cross. It was the last plane to leave Biafra that was not fired upon.

While in Biafra, I saw a play which expressed the spiritual condition of the Biafrans at the end. It was set in ancient times, in the home of a medicine man. The moon had not been seen for many months, and the crops had failed. There was nothing to eat anymore. A sacrifice was made to a goddess of fertility, and the sacrifice was refused. The goddess gave the reason: The people were not sufficiently unselfish and brave.

Before the drama began, the national anthem was played on an ancient marimba. It seems likely that similar marimbas were heard in the court of the Kingdom of Biafra. The black man who played the marimba was naked to the waist. He squatted on the stage. He was a composer. He also held a doctor’s degree from the London School of Economics.

Some tribe.

I went to Biafra with another novelist, my old friend Vance Bourjaily, and with Miss Miriam Reik, who would be our guide. She was head of a pro-Biafran committee that had already flown several American writers into Biafra. She would pay our way.

I met her for the first time at Kennedy Airport. We were about to take off for Paris together. It was New Year’s Day. I bought her a drink, though she protested that her committee should pay, and I learned that she had a doctor’s degree in English literature. She was also a pianist and a daughter of Theodor Reik, the famous psychoanalyst.

Her father had died three days before.

I told Miriam how sorry I was about her father, said how much I’d liked the one book of his I had read, which was Listening with the Third Ear.

He was a gentle Jew, who got out of Austria while the getting was good. Another well-known book of his was Masochism in Modern Man.

And I asked her to tell me more about her committee, whose beneficiary I was, and she confessed that she was it: It was a committee of one. She is a tall, good-looking woman, by the way, thirty-two years old. She said she founded her own committee because she grew sick of other American organizations that were helping Biafra. Those organizations teemed with people ‘who were kinky with guilt’, she said. They were trying to dump some of that guilt by being maudlinly charitable. As for herself; she said, it was the greatness of the Biafran people, not their pitifulness that turned her on.

She hoped the Biafrans would get more weapons from somebody, the very latest in killing machines. She was going into Biafra for the third time in a year. She wasn’t afraid of anything. Some committee.

I admire Miriam, though I am not grateful for the trip she gave me. It was like a free trip to Auschwitz when the ovens were still going full blast. I now feel lousy all the time.

I will follow Miriam’s example as best I can. My main aim will not be to move readers to voluptuous tears with tales about innocent black children dying like flies, about rape and looting and murder and all that. I will tell instead about an admirable nation that lived for less than three years.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Say nothing but good of the dead.

Currently Reading: The Rebel by Albert Camus

By one of the most profoundly influential thinkers of our century. The Rebel (L’Homme Révolté) is a classic essay on revolution. For Albert Camus, the urge to revolt is one of the “essential dimensions” of human nature, manifested in man’s timeless Promethean struggle against the conditions of his existence, as well as the popular uprisings against established orders throughout history. And yet, with an eye toward the French Revolution and its regicides and deicides, he shows how inevitably the course of revolution leads to tyranny. As old regimes throughout the world collapse, The Rebel resonates as an ardent, eloquent, and supremely rational voice of conscience for our tumultous times.

Currently Reading: The Rebel by Albert Camus

By one of the most profoundly influential thinkers of our century. The Rebel (L’Homme Révolté) is a classic essay on revolution. For Albert Camus, the urge to revolt is one of the “essential dimensions” of human nature, manifested in man’s timeless Promethean struggle against the conditions of his existence, as well as the popular uprisings against established orders throughout history. And yet, with an eye toward the French Revolution and its regicides and deicides, he shows how inevitably the course of revolution leads to tyranny. As old regimes throughout the world collapse, The Rebel resonates as an ardent, eloquent, and supremely rational voice of conscience for our tumultous times.

Link: Vladimir Nabokov: The Psychologist

Vladimir Nabokov’s understanding of human nature anticipated the advances in psychology since his day.

Vladimir Nabokov once dismissed as “preposterous” the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet’s assertions that his novels eliminated psychology: “The shifts of levels, the interpenetration of successive impressions and so forth belong of course to psychology,” Nabokov said, “—psychology at its best.” Later asked, “Are you a psychological novelist?” Nabokov replied: “All novelists of any worth are psychological novelists.”

Psychology fills vastly wider channels now than when Nabokov, in the mid-20th century, refused to sail the narrow course between the Scylla of behaviorism and the Charybdis of Freud. It deals with what matters to writers, readers, and others: with memory and imagination, emotion and thought, art and our attunement to one another, and it does so in wider time frames and with tighter spatial focus than even Nabokov could imagine. It therefore seems high time to revise or refresh our sense of Nabokov by considering him as a serious (and of course a playful) psychologist, and to see what literature and psychology can now offer each other.

We could move in many directions, which is itself a tribute to Nabokov’s range and strengths as a psychologist: the writer as reader of others and himself, as observer and introspector; as interpreter of the psychology he knew from fiction (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce), nonfiction, and professional psychology (William James, Freud, Havelock Ellis); as psychological theorist; and as psychological “experimenter,” running thought experiments on the characters he creates and on the effects he produces in readers. We could consider him in relation to the different branches of psychology, in his own time and now (abnormal, clinical, comparative, cognitive, developmental, evolutionary, individual, personality, positive, social); in relation to different functions of mind, the limits of which he happily tests (attention, perception, emotion, memory, imagination, and pure cognition: knowing, understanding, inferring, discovering, solving, inventing); in relation to different states of consciousness (waking, sleeping, dreaming, delirium, reverie, inspiration, near-death experience, death experience). And we could consider what recent psychology explains in ways that Nabokov foresaw or all but ruled impossible to explain.

He used to tell his students that “the whole history of literary fiction as an evolutionary process may be said to be a gradual probing of deeper and deeper layers of life. … The artist, like the scientist, in the process of evolution of art and science, is always casting around, understanding a little more than his predecessor, penetrating further with a keener and more brilliant eye.” As a young boy he desperately wanted to discover new species of butterflies, and he became no less avid as a writer for new finds in literature, not only in words, details, and images, in structures and tactics, but also in psychology.

Link: Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

“Shooting an Elephant” is an essay by George Orwell, first published in the literary magazine New Writing in the autumn of 1936 and broadcast by the BBC Home Service on 12 October 1948. The essay describes the experience of the English narrator, possibly Orwell himself, called upon to shoot an aggressive elephant while working as a police officer in Burma. Because the locals expect him to do the job, he does so against his better judgment, his anguish increased by the elephant’s slow and painful death. The story is regarded as a metaphor for British imperialism, and for Orwell’s view that “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick – one never does when a shot goes home – but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down.

(Source: sunrec)

Link: National Responsibility and Historic Crimes

Your country has probably done some very bad things. Perhaps recently, perhaps before you or even your parents were born. How do you feel about that? Does your present government have a duty to make amends for the bad things it has done, for example with apologies and reparations? Intuitively most people think so, but what kind of duty is that and what does it require from you as a citizen or subject? And how can you get other countries to admit that they have done wrong?

The standard way of thinking about national responsibility for historic crimes is to reach for the model of criminal guilt. This has two parts: national identity in which we establish that the country standing before us is the same one that did the crime; and collective responsibility in which we establish that the people of a country can be jointly held accountable for their county’s actions. Both are deeply problematic.

National identity presumes that a country, like a person, has an enduring individual identity over time. So even if all the people who were alive in the times of colonialism are gone, the actor remains the same. Just like you are supposed to be the same person now as the one with your name who played marbles as a child, so the actions of a country ‘in its youth’ are supposed to be the actions of the same country that stands before us now. Personal identity is philosophically controversial - after all people do change significantly as they go through life in all sorts of ways. But the problem for national identity seems much more significant, because countries are corporate entities in the first place (similar to corporations). That means that they are supposed to survive changes in their components, like the people who happen to live in them and their ethnicity; the politicians who run them; the religions that are popular; where the borders run; and so on. These are relevant to the character of the country, but are not essential to its identity. What really defines a country, like a company, are words not people: its name and constitution. That means that a country can be created, or dissolved, with the stroke of a pen. So, while historians can easily identify a particular country as responsible for some terrible atrocity, the real problem is to re-identify that country in the present. Is the Federal Republic of Germany really the same country that carried out the holocaust and turned eastern Europe into a bloodbath?

Collective responsibility is concerned with showing that a country’s people are ultimately responsible for its actions and therefore guilty of its crimes. Of course not everyone agrees with, or even necessarily fully understands, what their country does. But nonetheless the country acts in their name and so, it may be argued, they give it at least their implicit support. In a democracy this popular responsibility is fomalised in the concept of collective self-government: we all agree that decisions made according to certain democratic procedures represent our collective will, even if our personal preference was otherwise. So when a democracy goes to war all its citizens are, in an extended sense, joint authors of that action. This condition won’t be fully met by non-democracies - i.e. most countries throughout history - but one might suppose that it works by degrees. The central point is that whenever a country does something bad all its citizens are assumed to share responsibility for it, and if they want to argue otherwise the burden of proof is on them to show for example that they did everything possible to protest and resist.

But even if one accepts this, there are obvious difficulties in asserting that collective responsibility passes to the present day citizens of an offending country. First if we go via citizenship we easily find demographic contradictions. The tiny minority of Armenians still living in modern Turkey would be considered co-responsible for the original genocide and would be required to contribute to making amends, for example by being taxed to pay for any reparations; giving up property to returning descendants of survivors; etc. Many countries have experienced large scale immigration in the past 50 years. For example more than a million people originating from the former British colony of India now live in Britain. Should they be co-responsible for apologising and paying reparations for Britain’s ghastly imperialist oppression, there and elsewhere?

Second, if we give up on citizenship and try to hold responsible the actual descendants of citizens who went along with odious regimes like Hitler’s Germany, then we may find that many now live in other countries. And aside from such technical problems, such a criterion of ‘guilt by blood’ is one we strongly reject in other places. For example in civilised debate the claim that contemporary Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus is rightly considered both ridiculous and evil.

The model of criminal responsibility - linking present citizens to past crimes by vaguely related actors via collective guilt - is a complete failure. And yet we still have an intuition that we are still responsible - somehow - for the past sins of our countries.


Notes from a Unicorn
What it’s like to be a bisexual man in a world that wants you to choose between being either gay or straight.
Recently, on OKCupid, a woman messaged me: “Are you truly into ladies, and if so, what type? Finding a truly bi man is like finding a unicorn.”
If I’m a unicorn where I live now, in L.A., then I was a unicorn rocky mountain oyster when I moved to the old rustbelt city of Syracuse, New York to go to grad school and live for the first time as a fully out bi man. There was one other mythical bi man in the entire city, but try as I might, I never found him. At the gay bar, I sometimes got called a “half-breeder.” Straight people treated me just as shittily as they treat gay people. Three times, gay men hit me in the back of the head when they saw my head turn for a women. For the most part, straight women wouldn’t date me because, as one said, “You’re just gonna leave me to go suck a dick.” For the first time in my life, frat boys called me fag. My professor said, “The world just isn’t ready for gay marriage.” I emailed him “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Then I went out with friends and my gay friends didn’t know what to do because I got drunk and flirted with a lesbian. A friend said she thought bi people didn’t exist. I said, “I’m sitting right here,” because that was my answer, but I was starting to believe her. I stopped telling people what I was. I let people think what they wanted, which was usually that I was like them.

Notes from a Unicorn

What it’s like to be a bisexual man in a world that wants you to choose between being either gay or straight.

Recently, on OKCupid, a woman messaged me: “Are you truly into ladies, and if so, what type? Finding a truly bi man is like finding a unicorn.”

If I’m a unicorn where I live now, in L.A., then I was a unicorn rocky mountain oyster when I moved to the old rustbelt city of Syracuse, New York to go to grad school and live for the first time as a fully out bi man. There was one other mythical bi man in the entire city, but try as I might, I never found him. At the gay bar, I sometimes got called a “half-breeder.” Straight people treated me just as shittily as they treat gay people. Three times, gay men hit me in the back of the head when they saw my head turn for a women. For the most part, straight women wouldn’t date me because, as one said, “You’re just gonna leave me to go suck a dick.” For the first time in my life, frat boys called me fag. My professor said, “The world just isn’t ready for gay marriage.” I emailed him “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Then I went out with friends and my gay friends didn’t know what to do because I got drunk and flirted with a lesbian. A friend said she thought bi people didn’t exist. I said, “I’m sitting right here,” because that was my answer, but I was starting to believe her. I stopped telling people what I was. I let people think what they wanted, which was usually that I was like them.

Link: Absent Things as if They Are Present

Essay on the practice of erasures in literature.

The dictionary defines erase as “to scrape or rub out (anything written, engraved, etc.); to efface, expunge, obliterate.” Its Latin root roughly translates as “to scrape away.” These definitions imply loss and destruction. They call to mind Richard Nixon’s audio-tape gaps, the photographic manipulations of Stalin, the Archimedes Palimpsest, the missing fragments of Sappho. Death.

Heidegger practiced erasure as a way to define nihilism (in an indefinite sort of way). In a 1956 letter to Ernst Jünger, Heidegger wrote the term being, then crossed it out: “Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since the word is necessary, it remains legible.” Here erasure, or what philosophers call sous rature (“under erasure”), illustrates the problematic existence of presence and the absence of meaning. Crossed out, being becomes unreliable and indispensable at once.

Literary erasure has its own definition. To erase is to create a new work out of an existing one: canonical, obscure, wonderful, terrible, it’s the erasurist’s choice. When Mary Ruefle whited out select words from A Little White Shadow, an obscure nineteenth-century book published “for the Benefit of a Summer Home for Working Girls,” lines of captivating poetry emerged: “It was my duty to keep the piano filled with roses.” Wave Books brought out a facsimile of her erasure, preserving the appearance of her small, whited-out copy, under the appropriate (and appropriated) title A Little White Shadow.

Why erase the works of other writers? The philosophical answer is that poets, as Wordsworth defines them, are “affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present.” The more practical answer: compared to writing, erasing feels easy.

But I am here to convince you: to erase is to write, style is the consequence of a writer’s omissions, and the writer is always plural.

To erase is to leave something else behind.

Link: The Gospel of Consumption and the Better Future we Left Behind

Our modern predicament is a case in point. By 2005 per capita household spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) was twelve times what it had been in 1929, while per capita spending for durable goods—the big stuff such as cars and appliances—was thirty-two times higher. Meanwhile, by 2000 the average married couple with children was working almost five hundred hours a year more than in 1979. And according to reports by the Federal Reserve Bank in 2004 and 2005, over 40 percent of American families spend more than they earn. The average household carries $18,654 in debt, not including home-mortgage debt, and the ratio of household debt to income is at record levels, having roughly doubled over the last two decades. We are quite literally working ourselves into a frenzy just so we can consume all that our machines can produce.

Yet we could work and spend a lot less and still live quite comfortably. By 1991 the amount of goods and services produced for each hour of labor was double what it had been in 1948. By 2006 that figure had risen another 30 percent. In other words, if as a society we made a collective decision to get by on the amount we produced and consumed seventeen years ago, we could cut back from the standard forty-hour week to 5.3 hours per day—or 2.7 hours if we were willing to return to the 1948 level. We were already the richest country on the planet in 1948 and most of the world has not yet caught up to where we were then. 

Rather than realizing the enriched social life that Kellogg’s vision offered us, we have impoverished our human communities with a form of materialism that leaves us in relative isolation from family, friends, and neighbors. We simply don’t have time for them. Unlike our great-grandparents who passed the time, we spend it. An outside observer might conclude that we are in the grip of some strange curse, like a modern-day King Midas whose touch turns everything into a product built around a microchip.

Of course not everybody has been able to take part in the buying spree on equal terms. Millions of Americans work long hours at poverty wages while many others can find no work at all. However, as advertisers well know, poverty does not render one immune to the gospel of consumption.

Link: Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

"Shooting an Elephant" is an essay by George Orwell, first published in the literary magazine New Writing in the autumn of 1936 and broadcast by the BBC Home Service on 12 October 1948. The essay describes the experience of the English narrator, possibly Orwell himself, called upon to shoot an aggressive elephant while working as a police officer in Burma. Because the locals expect him to do the job, he does so against his better judgment, his anguish increased by the elephant’s slow and painful death. The story is regarded as a metaphor for British imperialism, and for Orwell’s view that “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick – one never does when a shot goes home – but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down.