Monthly Archives: September 2010

links for 2010-09-22

Judt on Milosz

I don’t think I had read anything of Tony Judt’s writing until I revived my long-lapsed subscription to NYRB a year ago, just in time to catch his riveting last pieces. I’ve begun his Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, and it’ll take a while to absorb its immensity. In the most recent NYRB there’s a piece on Milosz’s Captive Minds (fortunately not behind the paywall and well worth reading in its entirety) that reminds me of things I should have been paying attention to, or should at least have encountered. Judt unpacks the (originally Arabic) concept of ‘Ketman’:

The second image is that of “Ketman,” borrowed from Arthur de Gobineau’s Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia, in which the French traveler reports the Persian phenomenon of elective identities. Those who have internalized the way of being called “Ketman” can live with the contradictions of saying one thing and believing another, adapting freely to each new requirement of their rulers while believing that they have preserved somewhere within themselves the autonomy of a free thinker—or at any rate a thinker who has freely chosen to subordinate himself to the ideas and dictates of others.
Ketman, in Miłosz’s words, “brings comfort, fostering dreams of what might be, and even the enclosing fence affords the solace of reverie.” Writing for the desk drawer becomes a sign of inner liberty. At least his audience would take him seriously if only they could read him…

Judt describes his own history of teaching Milosz to American students:

And indeed, when I first taught the book in the 1970s, I spent most of my time explaining to would-be radical students just why a “captive mind” was not a good thing. Thirty years on, my young audience is simply mystified: Why would someone sell his soul to any idea, much less a repressive one? By the turn of the twenty-first century, few of my North American students had ever met a Marxist. A self-abnegating commitment to a secular faith was beyond their imaginative reach. When I started out, my challenge was to explain why people became disillusioned with Marxism; today, the insuperable hurdle one faces is explaining the illusion itself.

At this point I started to anticipate his argument, thinking “but isn’t this just what they’ve done themselves?”, but I was unprepared for the clarity with which Judt sums it up:

Today, we can still hear sputtering echoes of the attempt to reignite the cold war around a crusade against “Islamo-fascism.” But the true mental captivity of our time lies elsewhere. Our contemporary faith in “the market” rigorously tracks its radical nineteenth-century doppelgänger—the unquestioning belief in necessity, progress, and History. Just as the hapless British Labour chancellor in 1929–1931, Philip Snowden, threw up his hands in the face of the Depression and declared that there was no point opposing the ineluctable laws of capitalism, so Europe’s leaders today scuttle into budgetary austerity to appease “the markets.”
But “the market”—like “dialectical materialism”—is just an abstraction: at once ultra-rational (its argument trumps all) and the acme of unreason (it is not open to question). It has its true believers—mediocre thinkers by contrast with the founding fathers, but influential withal; its fellow travelers—who may privately doubt the claims of the dogma but see no alternative to preaching it; and its victims, many of whom in the US especially have dutifully swallowed their pill and proudly proclaim the virtues of a doctrine whose benefits they will never see.
Above all, the thrall in which an ideology holds a people is best measured by their collective inability to imagine alternatives. We know perfectly well that untrammeled faith in unregulated markets kills: the rigid application of what was until recently the “Washington consensus” in vulnerable developing countries—with its emphasis on tight fiscal policy, privatization, low tariffs, and deregulation—has destroyed millions of livelihoods. Meanwhile, the stringent “commercial terms” on which vital pharmaceuticals are made available has drastically reduced life expectancy in many places. But in Margaret Thatcher’s deathless phrase, “there is no alternative.”

Two eloquent passages from the day’s reading

I’ve had Dwight Macdonald’s Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm –and After (1960) for years, and nibbled at it betimes. The September 20th issue of The New Yorker has a Louis Menand review of The Oxford Book of Parodies (2010) which has this beautifully clear –indeed, all but anthropological– summary of what HAPPENED in the 50 intervening years:

In 1960, though, Macdonald was pushing on a door where there was still some resistance. Since then, literature has ceased to be the dominant middle-class cultural preference, and the barrier between the authentic and the parodic has collapsed. A “diffused parodic sense” is everywhere. The culture is flooded with ironic self-reflexivity and imitations of imitations: travesties, spoofs, skits, lampoons, pastiches, quotations, samplings, appropriations, repurposings. This has happened at the low end (television commercials that are parodies of television commercials) and the high (postmodern fiction). And since 1960 a giant continent of mainstream entertainment has emerged of which parody is the foundation, from National Lampoon, Monty Python, and “Saturday Night Live” to Spy, Weird Al Yankovic, “The Simpsons,” and The Onion.

…even the members of reading clubs could use some guidance making sense of a culture in which almost nothing is taken seriously unless it first makes fun of what it is. This practice may be partly self-protective: it is harder for someone to subvert you if you are already subverting yourself. But self-parody can also convey authority. The “Daily Show” is a parody of a news program, and a lot of people rely on it for news.

Still, anthologically speaking, where to start? When everything is quasi-parodic, when everything presents itself with a wink of self-conscious exaggeration, then it may be that parody is finished as the kind of genre you can represent within the confines of an Oxford Book… (pg 80)

And an hour or so later I found myself immersed in Joshua Clover’s “Busted: Stories of the Financial Crisis” from September 20 issue of The Nation, staring at another brilliant bit of analytical abstraction:

…When one converts, say, collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps into a folksy story about the neighbors and their home insurance, the crisis appears more legible than its components, those acronymic phantasms of fictitious capital traded by the blind protocols of shell companies hoping to arbitrage a few billion pennies from minuscule imbalances in a great global system.

What those two passages share is an exemplary clarity of analysis and expression, to which I wish I could rise myself. Still, I know it when I see it.