Archive for the 'Sacred Cow dart board' Category

“Pervy blin narkomom”

August 14, 2016

This summer I tackled my first real history book – real in the sense of first-class scholarship drawing directly on primary sources. The topic was 1930s Soviet industrialization, and the author is Stephen Kotkin. I chose Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, the second of his books on Magnitogorsk, a large planned Soviet-era industrial and mining town. His first book deals with its more recent history, and I may read that one too, or one of his other titles about Russian history in the transition and post-Communist eras.

His research questions, in studying primary sources, included these: What was Russian about Stalinism, what was inevitable (inherent in the project of governance under communism), and what was idiosyncratic about it? This book is especially interesting in light of Putin’s heavy-handed efforts to rehabilitate Stalin, which can best be understood as reactionary conservatism, an attempt to reverse the demoralizing effects hindsight had on the Russian people during the late Communist era of de-Stalinisation, when so many skeletons were taken out of the closets to be buried.

I was largely unprepared for what I learned from this book, having always associated Russian Communism with American Socialism and the progressive movement. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken the movie Reds at face value. Socialists and other progressives were persecuted violently under Stalinism, as were any officials who questioned the official line, not to speak of rank-and-file Party members. And I was completely surprised to learn that Party membership was far from universal in Communist Russia. Apparently the Communist Party itself was made up of a highly selective new ruling elite – membership was tightly restricted, and yet at times during the Party’s history, Party members were the first to feel the brunt of a violent purge.

Kotkin paints a vivid portrait of everyday life for both workers and officials under Stalin, and the picture of a society in turmoil is engrossing. He documents ordinary workers’ adoption of communist values in everyday life as well as their grumblings, some violently suppressed and others blithely noted in passing by the keepers of official records. One witnesses rapidly rising expectations in terms of standard of living, and a glaring gap between these utopian promises and the reality on the ground. The lightning-speed eradication of illiteracy in the early years of Communism is documented alongside the extreme cultural paucity of the radical censorship regime. Promises to meet every citizen’s material needs are juxtaposed with images of famine, sometimes episodic and sometimes prolonged, but never equally distributed across the population.


It becomes difficult to see Stalinism as a civilization when it seems that everything we associate with civilization today was banned under Stalinism, with the notable exception of jazz (which was always considered suspiciously bourgeois, but never quite fell out of favor with the ruling elite). But Kotkin convincingly attributes a sense of ownership of the revolutionary project to the Russian people in this era, and a deep sense of popular commitment to the goals of rapid industrialization, however traumatic the pace.  As a sense-making project, the book is definitely a success.

Perhaps the most valuable lessons to be learned from this book are the lessons of the purges within the Communist Party – while the author barely describes the purges of non-Party members, which were in fact far more extensive. Very likely this bias reflects a bias within the official record, with far more evidence available from which to describe the Party purges vividly. Kotkin recognizes the “housekeeping” rationale of the iterative bloodbaths alongside the vicious cycle of recriminations and careerist incriminations fostered by Stalin’s murderous directive that the Party engage in “self-criticism”, a byword which survived as a tenet of Party ideology even into the Khrushchev thaw.

If there had been any “housekeeping” agenda at work in the purges, it was a desperate and double-dealing project from the outset. Take the example of an official “purged” for engaging in illegal trade with state resources in order to finance his mandated quota of services and goods provided. His motive was simple: he had orders to deliver, and no budget with which to work. And had he not found ways to meet his quota, very likely he would have been “purged” for nonperformance.

The vulnerability of the Communist elite can be explained by the redundancies built into the Russian government under Communism: there were two chains of command, the state pyramid and the Party pyramid. Every organ of the state thus operated under two chains of command, the ordinary one and the Party one, which was to serve as an ideological watchdog and which was liable for the successes and failures of its counterpart. Hence the redundant Party bosses could easily be painted as self-serving leeches on the system, if any flaw could be found in their performance.

The first to be purged were the ideological non-conformists, lumped indiscriminately under the banner of Trotskyists. Later purges associated their victims with the fascist threat from abroad, and accused officials lagging in industrial performance (or guilty of ruining their equipment in an overeager attempt to exceed its production capacity to meet official targets) of sabotage and espionage in one breath. Kotkin illuminates an enduring level of xenophobia and ignorance of the outside world that could explain how some officials were purged simply for having foreign-sounding names.

Yesterday I discovered an anecdote about Shostakovich and his Symphony No. 5 that illuminates the era of the Great Purge nicely. The symphony was written while the composer (living in Russia) had fallen into disfavor, in the late 1930s. His opera Lady Macbeth had been a great success until the day Stalin came to see it, but the composer was “white as a sheet” by the end of the performance. Stalin had laughed during an explicit sex scene and had later walked out. The next day Pravda carried a scathing editorial about the opera, and not until Symphony No. 5 brought the audience to their feet with tears in their eyes was Shostakovich restored in stature. You can judge for yourself what the symphony is about.

The Russian proverb I used as the title of this blog entry appears untranslated as an epigraph to Kotkin’s last chapter, and he says it is untranslatable. But I was able to find the source:

“‘How was that as a first try?’ asked Trotsky. [Vladimir] Mayakovsky answered with a devastating pun: ‘The first pancake falls like a People’s Commissar’ (pervy blin lyog narkomom), a play on the saying ‘the first pancake falls like a lump.’”

This and other gems make Kotkin’s description of the “little tactics of the habitat” under Stalinism a real page-turner, and I am looking forward to checking out more of his work. But for now I am chewing through Khrushchev’s memoirs, the first half of which are profoundly depressing in this context. Over and over again he shares anecdotes about directives from Stalin that he carried out against his own better judgment for fear of the consequences of gainsaying the boss. I’ve made it up to the point of Stalin’s death now, and I’m hoping the second half of the book will show up the author’s engaging personality more fully, out from under the shadow of pervasive sycophancy in an environment of totalitarianism.

Culture lag and family violence

July 6, 2014

If she were in treatment for her behavioral problems, my mother would probably be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Her extreme reactions to perceived abandonment, her tendency to idealize or devalue those closest to her in black and white terms, her intense and mercurial mood swings and her propensity for violence all fit the clinical profile.

David Mallen writes about the intergenerational relationship problems that give rise to Borderline Personality Disorder on his blog about psychoanalysis, focusing on a concept called culture lag. This concept has to do with social transitions and regressive attitudes toward institutional change that hold some families back from the benefits of social progress.

In mapping the family trees of patients, he says, “one can often see just how far a family’s operating rules lag behind the current cultural norms. In anthropology, this problem is called cultural lag. The cultural progression in Western nations, which is mimicked within certain families, was thus: First, women really could not have careers at all. Then, they could have careers, but only when they were single. Then – and here is where many families with BPD members are stuck – they could only have careers when they had not yet had children. Then, they could have careers even if married with children, but they had to give priority to the husband’s career. Last, both men and women were entitled to the same freedom.”


Women of my mother’s generation, the baby boomers, had conflicted role models in their mothers – women who may have enjoyed careers during World War II, only to give that economic independence up again when their husbands returned home. Social pressure, the soft power exerted by men, was what brought them back into domestic roles.

Institutional change would shape the options of their daughters, with the advent of affordable hormonal contraception and, in 1988, divorce law reforms that made pursuing child support payments from absent fathers more feasible for single mothers. This had a profound effect on my childhood, since my father resisted child support payments but was ultimately compelled to make a meaningful contribution to our household expenses.

Whether her mother resented the care-giver role imposed on her generation or not, it’s clear my mother developed a love-hate relationship with the responsibilities of a single parent. She idealized her own power over me but expressed great bitterness about the financial sacrifices and time that parenting errands took from her other interests. The unpaid work of childrearing was all hers by default, a situation described in Affective Inequalities as a vacuum left to be filled largely by women in a market economy that places little socioeconomic value on “love labors”.

She had supported my father through graduate school, lost her second marriage while I was still a small child, and in the bargain she had somehow lost the right to pursue her own happiness – time no longer allowed for the self-indulgent. Everything that had mattered to her as a young adult – adventure, travel, culture, friends – took a backseat towards the doubled care-giving work of a career schoolteacher with a child at home.


The social obligations of care-giving roles fall out in an informal economy unregulated by contract law, where trading sex for instrumental support is still sanctioned and redress for cohabiting relationship violence is in conflict with housing insecurity problems on the part of dependent victims. Here culture lag is in full force, warping the social expectations and identity-forming experiences of parents and children alike.

The socially regressive tilt of the informal economy is formalized in a victim-blaming theory of domestic violence that posits “make-up sex” as the pivotal phase in a domestic violence cycle explaining why victimization is so often chronic – putting “gifts” in the fine print of the “kiss and make-up” phase of the cycle to trivialize the role of poverty in victimization. The prerogatives of homeowners to terrorize their dependents are institutionalized in the stigma this theory assigns to victims of intimate partner violence.

Neoliberalism’s patent indifference toward the needs of those who lack spending power of their own has sealed a glass ceiling over social progress in this respect. Parents can be pressed into sweatshop labor to keep up with the needs of their children, and oversight of their childrearing capabilities is scant. Those who don’t cope well with the stress have a free hand with their dependents, and are rarely penalized for taking their frustrations out on their children.


Gender theory could enrich the analysis of domestic violence and child abuse by getting past the gendered role expectations of the “domestic violence cycle” and seeing every participant in family violence as a potential aggressor. A female victim of child abuse can internalize attitudes toward violence that lead her to lash out in turn herself, and dependency relationships needn’t be heterosexual partnerships to take on dyadic chronic violence dynamics.

Queering the domestic violence cycle would shed light on these more diverse potentials for abuse and family violence. Queer theory treats identity as fluid and culturally produced rather than innate and static, and regards gendered roles as options rather than birthrights.

Abstracting the heterosexual dyadic stereotypes in domestic violence theory from the analytical frame and treating them as an artifact of cultural production foregrounds the ritual element to interpersonal violence, the sense in which violent incidents are all role playing games and BDSM themes are the scripts ordinary people avail themselves of during threat displays and mind games with their habitual victims.

Moving away from the subjective and into object relations theory, the socially constructed identities and entanglements of participants in family violence can be seen as market-mediated processes of individuation and transformation. Relationships with dependents, understood within the analytical frameworks of consumerism and adculture, unfold as status commodity spending patterns that are unstable precisely because the cash involved is fungible and every expense imposes a perceived opportunity cost.

The objectification of dependents and the sexualization of commodity display culture can imbue any relationship with the energies of frustrated libido, curbed by the same normative cues as aggression and hence prone to simultaneous, explosive release when the curb is relaxed (behind closed doors).

Hence the prerogative of fathers to rape their daughters, as if any sex object presumptuous enough to invite itself in were available to the homeowner’s consumption privileges. The logic is not much different from date rape, when the car is substituted for the house as the unit of personal space within which all guests are at the owner’s disposal. Fuzzy thinking’s mixed metaphors for everyday life blur getting in with giving consent, and even victims may second-guess whether or not such an assault counts as rape.


The problem-solving logics of governance and trade fail to make sense of love relations, which are predicated on tolerating tension even when it threatens to enmesh the individual with multiple commitments in the contrary experience of cognitive dissonance. Ambivalence about the limits of personal responsibility arises near those limits, and cannot be totalizing, or love does not hold sway.

But market pressures and hegemonic traditions shape love relations intimately, through the cultural contingencies that give rise to intimate relationships. The prerogatives of the informal expectations don’t just shape vulnerabilities, they also shape desires. A domestic violence theory that focuses on the failure to leave on the part of victims is one that fails to ask important questions about why aggressors initiate acts of abuse.

Love labors demand a profoundly forgiving attitude towards the burdens we impose on one another as care-giving needs. Joanna North explores the concept of forgiveness in detail: “What is annulled in the act of forgiveness is not the crime itself but the distorting effect that this wrong has upon one’s relations with the wrongdoer and perhaps with others.” A domestic violence cycle that lacks heterosexual stereotypes about role expectations would explain the chronic nature of cohabiting relationship violence in terms of conflict-resolution failure, the impossibility of forgiveness, and its distorting effects on the relationships between breadwinners and their dependents.

  • Forgiveness begins with introspection.
    • What was the nature of my mistake?
    • What are my beliefs about the mistake?
    • What emotions did I experience in the aftermath of the mistake?
    • How did I cope with the mistake?
    • What changes did I make in my practice as a result of the mistake?
  • The structure of a situation open to forgiveness requires reciprocation.
    • Forgiveness for the forgiver has three levels:
      • Cognitive: “I will stop thinking about the offense.”
      • Emotive: “I will cease to feel anger and hatred toward the offender.”
      • Behavioral: “I will not seek revenge.”
    • Remorse for the forgiven also has three levels:
      • Cognitive: “I will acknowledge and admit my wrongdoing.”
      • Emotive: “I will feel and express sorrow for what I did.”
      • Behavioral: “I will desist from committing that wrong again and make amends.”

An enduring sense of grievance and an attitude of hypocrisy towards conflict-defusing phases in the cycle of violence characterizes any abusive relationship, and as role expectations adapt to habitual conflict, leaning into the perceived injustice instead of attempting to resolve the cognitive dissonance of unresolved tension would become part of the identity-formation experiences of the participants.

An embodied sense of justice is like the aesthetic instinct, it respects harmony in appearances as an immediate goal, working with the available materials and their surface presentations to seek a resolution to dissonance. Hardening a position in response to tension is one way of coping with disruption in everyday life, and giving up on a relationship that isn’t going away is a real option in the ebb and flow of the intimate and mundane.

Ways of escape that are superficial are myriad, and escapist coping mechanisms allay the more brutal fears of exposure to the elements and the vicissitudes of strangers that represent the more practical barriers to freedom from abuse. The degree to which abusers also dissociate from the here and now, sustaining a fantasy about life with which reality can never compete and attacking scapegoats for their disappointments, makes the abusive home a plane on which the minds of the inhabitants rarely meet, finding each other confusing and untrustworthy at every turn.

If culture lag explains this stalemate, the time warp governing the informal economy reflects real shortcomings in institutional reform to protect vulnerable populations like women and children. Only further radical reform like universal basic income would redress the pressures neoliberalism brings to bear on affective inequalities, taking housing insecurity out of the equation.

The gendered passive aggressive

May 26, 2014

It’s frustrating to not be able to tell the difference in most cases between somebody not having the time to find the right words to get through to you (bad hand-offs) and somebody using vagueness to be adversarial and deceptive.

If you have a consistent knack for looking foolish and a strong malicious streak, you can get extra mileage out of stabbing someone in the back while looking like you “tripped” – as if you obviously would never have done anything so reckless on purpose.

The violence of indifference is sudden and remorseless, the vacillation of a crowd that attacks a few who are not perfect strangers to all the rest, merely because most there are strangers to one another, and those who know them better fear taking their part.

The fear is reasonable; guilt by association is emotional reasoning, but not unlike categorical reasoning. The vaguely ascertained categories of personal qualities to which guilt adheres affect judgment about what is to be feared in someone, and those who resemble the traits are feared at least a little before they do any harm. Fear of “rocking the boat” is partly an expression of how disorienting it is to be your friend under inauspicious circumstances. It is momentary, situational disorientation, fear of disorder in their own thinking.


“O my friends, there is no friend.”

Making someone squirm mobilizes the same general sorts of physical anxiety that dogs try to dissipate by grooming themselves, but the bullying involved in this human behavior differs by invoking gendered socialization norms that heighten sexual inhibition and valorize the sublimation of sensual appetites for gratification in status-oriented satisfactions like paid work.

Squirming, in this instance, is a useless recoiling from sexualized disgust that differs from arousal altogether, but is denied physical recourse in calming “stimming” behaviors by social expectations that the mind-body dualism reflects a need for privacy and even in private, a certain sense of dignity about the body out of respect for the role of the mind in governing its impulses and functions.

This, conversely, gives the physical a pre-critical sort of authenticity when it surprises us, as if it kept our secrets and harbors the only credible “tells” about our lies. The body itself is where our emotions often initially seem to register, before we realize our thoughts are involved in interpreting the events that cause emotional reactions within. This is one reason why bodily awareness is central to living in the Now, being self-aware and cultivating emotional literacy – when you listen to your body, it comments on your relationships with others on a level your mind is slower to comprehend.

Nonverbal cues are seen as a step up from words in credibility, and clues to a speaker’s true feelings are sought in the tone of voice, timing and expression of the eyes. So we cannot stand to catch ourselves squirming.


Though the emotion imposed on the person bullied in this peculiar way is suppressive of sexuality, the attitude it produces is “futile and flailing” precisely because relieving the anxiety physically would feel like validating the noxious intercourse with a bodily response over which the mind is supposed to have control, like a tacit form of consent to be affected in that way.

Resisting a cue that makes you squirm, just like giving provocation without actual confrontation, is conceptually a loosely categorized mode of conflict, too casually lumped into the notion of being passive aggressive. Passive aggression is typically reciprocal and recursive, full of repressed energy and coded signs. It doesn’t find much traction for its barbs in confrontation with its opposite, naked aggression.

What does the label “passive aggression” mean? Its connotations are especially negative, those of a self-defeating behavior. The contradiction built into the phrase implies a habit of forcing a reaction that is conformist and cagey, the avoidance of being forthright. But passive aggression is more conventional than the use of brute force to advance a dispute, a normal element of everyday interpersonal friction despite the stigmatizing nature of the label.

The presumption of decency civilization imposes on what motives we offer openly for our own actions makes any effort to rely on expressed goodwill in others a risky gamble. But the normalization of passive aggression as a catch-all label for conventional ways of handling (or defusing) conflict implies a profound insincerity in this presumption of decency, something too many people are in denial about.


Because of role of the self-serving bias in rationalizing post-hoc for first impressions of a situation or event, our intellectual autonomy is deeply vulnerable when one operates on anything less than a presumption of indifference concerning the attitudes and behaviors of other people. Demonstrative ambivalence is central to passive aggressive attitudes and behaviors, the ambivalence of being above it all or too clever for one’s own good.

Hence passive aggressive is used only as a pejorative label for a poorly played hand; when verbalized, the label for it is deployed as a kind of posturing by someone with position against someone who cannot afford to maintain opposition (because they are in a weaker position). It is an accusation of bad faith and disruptive resentment within a pecking order.

A more specific word for an expressed passive aggressive attitude is “imposture” (a posturing method that hints ironically that one person believes his position of disadvantage was unwisely overrated by another), which if offered correctly is an irrefutable critique of authority and its assumptions.

King Lear‘s Fool expresses a sobering and compassionate imposture to authority in extremis. Villains like Iago are motivated by the vanities of wit bound up in courtly conventions of imposture. But more often than not, passive aggression falls to the female of the species.

Why would passive aggression be a gendered mode of conflict?

Dyadic habits are adversarial, if it’s not a zero-sum close call there are more than two people’s interests represented when any two people do converse; hence the similarity between Machiavelli and the Ars Amoria, and the romantic tradition of seeing acts of love as death for whomever is in love with the beloved, man or woman.


Of masculinity Montaigne wants to say what can only be said by quoting Lucretius: “How great the biter cares of lust that rend apart, .. pride and filth and wantonness .. And luxury and idleness!”

Much of the reality of gendered discrimination is now in the past for denizens of high income developed countries, and it is increasingly plausible for passive aggressive traits to transcend gendered lines. But the gendered reading of the postcolonial imagination captures a live wire of passive aggressive energy in Jamaica Kincaid’s portraits of Caribbean attitudes that exposes ongoing discrimination and a heavy inheritance of repressed aggression.

The passive aggressive is pregnant with resentment for enforced degrading attitudes or experiences (sometimes learned by osmosis from not bothering to argue with someone addressing you that way) at the personal and geographical levels, in Jamaica Kincaid’s image of “vexed” Caribbean flowers:

“In the night the flowers close up and thicken. The hibiscus flowers, the flamboyent flowers, the bachelor’s button, the irises, the marigolds, the whitehead-bush flowers, the lilies, the flowers on the daggerbush, the flowers on the turtleberrry bush, the flowers on the soursop tree, the flowers on the sugar-apple tree, the flowers on the mango tree, the flowers on the guava tree, the flowers on the cedar tree, the flowers on the stinking-toe tree, the flowers on the dumps tree, the flowers on the pawpaw tree, the flowers everywhere close up and thicken. The flowers are vexed.”

How and when not to be flip, conceptually, why impulsive sarcasm arises, what perceived pressures can be reinterpreted to avoid getting stuck in an attitude of facile rudeness, how that attitude resembles the sphexish violence of indifference, is difficult to parse out.


In The Quest for Christa T., Christa Wolf writes about a polite landlord in East Germany who allows herself to be played off against herself, whereas the neurotic Christa T. herself is stubborn about taking her life seriously every instant, and is capable of self-serious histrionics over a banal motivational wall hanging. Repressed memories of World War II infuse Christa T.’s life story with harsh social anxieties that mark the extrovert as an eccentric, and make non-conformism a dissociative experience in a world of open secrets.

Ironies commanded by male protagonists seem more boisterous, more fertile, than the passive aggressive travails of women. I read some of Shaw’s notes on his play Caesar and Cleopatra because the Vivien Leigh film adaptation impressed James Agee, and his review reminded me of Oliver Stone’s Alexander. For himself, Shaw says:

“It is said that on the occasion of his assassination [that] he defended himself until the good Brutes struck him, when he exclaimed ‘What! you too, Brutes!’ and disdained further fight. If this be true, he must have been an incorrigible comedian.”

But humor has to have dramatic rhythm to work as an ironic stratagem – forced irony is easy to spot and anything but compelling. Cross-cultural accusations of who looks ridiculous and who doesn’t have a sense of humor are useful no matter how unconvincing as far as political ad hominems go. They reinforce the other side’s perceived identity-politics insecurities, when accusing them of the flippancy and ambivalence characteristic of bystanders.

When and if the unsurprising nightmare unfolds, (each time), a little ambivalence (forced if need be) can create a safe emotional distance within desire for intimacy. It leaves room for composure when the ‘authentic’ reaction would be flustered, room for maneuver to keep up a presentable effort at staying poised in a moment of uncertainty. It’s easier to be amiable when some of your fears are hidden, and in a way, more enchantment can be dared if no one runs the absolute risk of disillusionment.

“Propping his mattress on the turning sphere,
Saturn his rings or Jupiter his bars
He follows, or the fleeting moons of Mars,
Till from his ticking lens they disappear …
Whereat he sighs, and yawns,
.. unamazed
Goes forth to plow, flinging a ribald stone
.. alien to his own.”

– Edna St. Vincent Millay

On writing and revising and marking a paper with margin notes for rewriting, one author gives examples of self-criticisms offered by women who hesitated to publish: “That has already been said,” “It’s not worth the trouble,” “It won’t be read,” “It will meet with nothing but criticism,” “It’s impossible to put all that into meaningful form.” Idle words, uninvested critics. All in glass houses, none lifting a stone.

Captain Smith’s coat of arms

February 23, 2013

Like the original Irish Don Juan, Colin Farrell has a reputation for knowing where the exits are when surrounded by strange women. So did the famous Captain Smith he played in The New World. As a travel writer, he kept his European contemporaries entertained with his strained insistence on having kept his innocence abroad.

The love affair with the colonized is a perennial theme in historical romance, grown stale enough for journalism since the “end of history” in globalization. Maybe this is how the intellectual who can get lost in his own library cuts what Richard Rorty describes as an “Alexandrian figure” – he’s “still trying to be a liberal” and a skeptic, “but unable to repress his excitement over the rumors about the barbarians.”


Rachel Weisz in The Mummy

His autobiography was part of a genre of travel writing: colonial lifestyle promotions. And Smith understood quite well that the secret to buzzworthy identity politics is innuendo.

One can see in Smith’s reputation among nay-sayers the flustered attitude of “Angel Preening,” a Sheila O’Hagan poem making comedy out of fastidiousness, when a bright little avenger of god’s settles on high to groom for a while in “that Delphinian blaze” above the bloody fray.

“Back from Earth, still thrusting itself
up to her in all its filth, she perches

On that cloud with a rosy tint
to the left, furiously preening,

One wing across a knee as she licks
the muck between her plumes, ..”

He was as defensive with his critics as an academic. Researchers, too, show a prurient artistic curiosity about cognitive dissonance and tricks to imposing poetic rhythms on the jargon of their trades. They have a knee jerk reflex for rejecting signs of domesticity as the universal experience, the mundane liking of things a certain way that is no superstition, warm and fussy privacy, vibrantly disagreeable in its willingness to be dull about anything it finds contentment in.

The stuffy anthropology that idolizes the most formal instances of ceremony (so amenable to description, photography, museum exhibits) and treats all conventional formalities as superstition sometimes makes qualitative analysis look like a way of reifying customary phrases for “subversive” preconceptions, as if all politic white lies and platitudes were magical archetypes corresponding to hidden meanings in Oedipus Rex.

flood_piles_of_bodies“Our life, Pythagoras used to say, is like the great and populous assembly at the Olympic games.” Again, Montaigne.

Never a one prefers practitioner use value to publication in the development of the data collection and analysis process – too many of them entering the academic life on the assumption that reforming contemporary practice is futile, that the Ivory Tower’s role is to object from above, and brighten the clouds with subtle dreams about a better world, conceivable in the subversive way that reason skips a step in the math to rush a sexual fantasy to its delightful conclusion.

His carrack taken in piracy, he was sheltered by a French chatelaine. His cuirass whispered in the marsh like a fingered bell. A federalist camarilla drafted the reform constitution. The measures were passed effectively in celation, unread.

Take it to the Peace Corps, and when the mendacity of cannibals rankles on a level you haven’t the wherewithal to find words for, take it to the overseas trade subsidies Beltway consultancy rackets and drown them with reservoirs absolved by scantily posted notices on trees if they live in trees to this miserable day. Or set the water at Port Harcourt on fire, it’s infested with 21st century gas pirates.

What we call “holy” is what consciousness cannot separate out of the continuity of experience yet cannot locate within solipsistic time either, the numinous image of what “transcends or eludes comprehension in rational or ethical terms,” an intractable excess of mystery, unlike all other materiality in “surpassing all that can be clearly understood and appraised,” that draws us forward to linger and wonder from a positive qualitative sense of what waits impassively beyond our ken, unlike that overpowering awe induced by fear of the demonic.

Kenneth Burke explains the purposed similarity in style and logic between Ovid and Machiavelli, with a brevity that seems impatient:

“It is neither ‘magical’ nor ‘scientific’ (neither ritualistic nor informational) for one person to ask help of another.”

The Prince is both Machiavelli’s most famous and most accessible book, but not a “systematic” picture of political affairs in the way contemporary scholars look for systematic properties in a theory at all. The little mercenary consulting professional who was better appreciated for his comedies than for his contributions to the security of Florence from the city’s political enemies was refused a commission for presenting The Prince as an unsolicited side dish to his resume, by statesmen who could tell it was just a book of aphorisms in the style of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, making much of the obvious. Burke puts the unifying principle this way:

“By the ‘principle of courtship’ in rhetoric we mean the use of the suasive devices for the transcending of social estrangement.”

One uses more than words to “make an impression” on an audience’s imagination, and the soldering of interests under threat of war is as intuitive a gesture as the place of touch in the principles of courtship, to have the difference between love-making and love poetry. For those of us picking up The Prince today, what was once obvious seems worth stating in enough iterative aphorisms to ensure it sinks in – against the full weight of compunction as it stands on verbal appearances when arguments come before the law.

Little fool, a sheep in fox colors, more destructively stupid than a cub is carnivorous. Bankers, like used car salesmen, rely very much on ultimatum games with tacit threats of imposed penury should their terms be refused, and penury in one’s hour of financial need when inquiries are first made is not a prospect without materially threatening dimensions, ready cold wind on a stormy night.

The muscular temerity and briskness of this essential thesis is easily lost in the contrary amusements Machiavelli favored in word play, mocked up as a reductionist manual in game theory with a pseudo-syllogistic structure.

Look at the similarity between combatant and civilian within a war zone. At most they can be distinguished by which are wearing cumbersome skirts and chasing chickens across the road during invasion maneuvers. Ignorance of the stalwart indifference civilians uphold against the internal traditions of military compunction is enough to make some foreigners arrived to overthrow one’s country look inanely innocent, to a female not normally much employed with her willingness to be a criminal.

The slow starving that scythed through survivors of the roll calls for shower gassing while the Nazi army was in retreat but the gates were kept padlocked on civilian death camps is a grim case study in what questions don’t come to mind “hypothetically speaking” in a services evaluations root cause analysis related to the all so conventional, instinctive boundaries of generosity and social consideration, “the frontiers of justice.”


Hesitation is so natural and to see it on all sides at once is so surprising, it is a human element to withdraw support, out of precaution-laden intimate concern for a somewhat smaller circle of loved ones, one that excludes more than mere strangers. Little lockets you merely stopped short of regifting, diary lists of whose are the lives you would take risks for, when risks of the littlest kind prove to still count for something in the way of giving pause.

No objectivity or indifference is plausible in love or war. We ask help of magic and science regardless, but we are more likely to promptly cross over the magical intervals than dwell in the spaces for transcendence that hold off interpretation, like “a threshold into another way of being and seeing” that never gives way.

We are in denial about the mundane face of conflict, it lurks too close to home.

True, you entered Babylon
perfect and loved by all, crowned
king of the known world, roses
spread under your magnificent march
through the blue gates, Bucephalus
solemn, crowds in awe, cheering.

Inside, you accepted this, its cost,
chose not to shirk success.
You could want everything
and give away the great wealth
achieved, even to Persians

whose beauty in perfect
strangeness you knew could
reconcile Greek and Eastern ways,
not penance but duty, toward
mankind and accounting science.

This at all costs. You made yourself more
completely alone than a king dare be,
Hephaistion the only one,
could never survive without him.

I do not know how your dream
of him ended, but you reached
for death with a gift in hand:
the great ring, love the last thought.

The warm brick on the front of every happy home is as stark a statement about one’s willingness to stand up for the neighbors as barbed wire, in practice, and when push comes to shove, calling objectivity about the way things are “helpful” is expressed, matter of fact indifference.

It doesn’t always come forward more formally than a piece of deference, “you for me, right?”

We default into labeling the injuries done to us as “passive aggressive” so often for this reason. That’s how the civilian in skirts who can now vote somehow fails to come across as a citizen of the traditional sort, and when she also wants access to military careers with full promotions at whatever the ordinary procedural risks to self and others are, her loyalties are noncommittally mimetic in a world that has not persuaded her it’s a good idea to choose sides. Is it not important to party?


Because the tacit parts of our conversations don’t seem binding, they seem harmless compared to signed contracts with Mephistopheles for wealth or education. There is pattern to the violence of indifference, there is a fearful symmetry to the fractal default path into a vanishing point of circularities that are arbitrary because one’s willingness to do harm to others for self-advantage isn’t that directional.

“Here we are, picking the first fern-shoot
And saying: When shall we get back to our country?
.. no one can let his friend return.
We grub the old fern-stalks.
We say: Will be let to go back in October?
There is no ease in royal affairs, we have no comfort.
Whose chariot? The General’s.
Horses, his horses even, are tired. They were strong.
We have no rest, three battles a month.
By heaven, his horses are tired.
The generals are on them, the soldiers are by them.
We come back in the snow,
We go slowly, we are hungry and thirsty,
Our mind is full of sorrow, who will know of our grief?”

– Shih-ching, trans. Ezra Pound

One’s notion of a just cause involves turning on the radio to find out what’s been decided for an official line. The physical features of habit “concerning the pervasive inadequate” drag every statement’s afterimage towards tells surrounding what you most urgently need to say, seeming to make it out a lie.

That is the fatal relaxation into vulnerability out of flared-out exhaustion after a rash passionate advancement of your own cause, leaving you exposed to snide “reading between the lines” that is only ostensibly subjective, that is outright lie, about “once compromised, twice a fool” for your having ever “found it necessary” to speak out, for having broken ranks by breaking silence as if silence were a sort of bread that nourished unbroken.

Next to the magic of the unstated, Machiavelli merely opens the book on sophistry in ethics before the law. These are the ugly bones of every expansion of legal detail revealed as additional minutiae, every nibble another caveat against the enforceability of simple assault law. The bland, final answer to the question “why am I a rebel without a cause? It’s not a question of refusing to settle for, they’re not trying to settle!”

Other humans make it look dangerous to lie down, yet your mind is made up of the experiences of a social animal and you don’t know how to extricate your presence as a knower in the world from the mistakes in which social life makes itself palpable: contact stunt emotional relatedness. What else would provoke you to learn, put opinions of how to live in your head?

All the while looking at your own choices and the way they impinge on the freedom and contentment of others and realizing when the fear is yours to bear but you can’t imagine where to turn for help, even when you look inward for an example,

“I can’t tell. I can’t tell.”

Poor friend of a scamp whose favorite jokes are in public diplomacy. As a war criminal she’s Imogen trying a pout on because Smith showed her a copy of King Lear and she has a sense of humor about Cordelia.

“After treating their prisoners well for a long time with all the hospitality they can think of, the captor of each one calls a great assembly of his acquaintances. He ties a rope to one of the prisoner’s arms, by the end of which he holds him, a few steps away, for fear of being hurt, and gives his dearest friend the other arm to hold in the same way; and these two, in the presence of the whole assembly, dispatch him with their swords.”

They eat him merely for revenge, Montaigne reports of the parrot hunting Americans (from Europe); “the proof of this is that having perceived that the Portuguese, who had joined forces with their adversaries, inflicted a different kind of death on them when they took them prisoner, which was to bury them up to the waist, shoot the rest of their bodies full of arrows, and afterwards hang them; .. they began to give up their old method and follow this one.”


Vandelism and larceny, flammable local refuse, here Peru.

Of course it’s quite believable that cannibals have been overestimated in every quality associated with stature by every contemporary of a traditional who hasn’t personally overthrown an entire tribe of them with a bad startle mistaken for bluster and a dour remark that incidentally put a trivial logic trap to work, one that somehow proved devastating against every witticism known to pidgin all at once – being repeated incredulously among the natives until its powers of surprise had been exhausted, so that the only survivors of the identity group were those that pointedly foreswore that tradition.

You need not actually know even one other person who looks like you, if your looks conform to an encyclopedia of ethnicities to which your actual peers have access and about which they do not know better, you must study that book to find the outward view from the circle that remains unbroken regardless of your will. 

Montaigne can explain why we use building cannibals and similar categories up to give anthropology employment: “We are nothing but ceremony; ceremony carries us away, and we leave the substance of things; we hang on to the branches and abandon the trunk and body.

“.. Ceremony forbids our expressing in words things that are permissible and natural, and we obey it; reason forbids our doing things that are illicit and wicked, and no one obeys it. I find myself here entangled in the laws of ceremony, for she does not allow a man either to speak well of himself, or to speak ill.

“.. it is not unbecoming to have characteristics and propensities so much our own and so incorporated into us that we have no way of sensing and recognizing them. And of such natural inclinations the body is likely to retain a certain bent, without our knowledge or consent. It was a certain affectation harmonious with his beauty that made Alexander lean his head a little to one side, and Alicibiades speak softly and with a lisp.”

To put it differently, in “real life” Americans who only speak English only use about as much phrasebook English as you find in a tourists’ primer on Swahili words and phrases. The rest is just brandishing whichever set of larger words came with your credentials in college, for show and tell.


Talk is full of shortcuts and fumbles for words shaped by such habits, not just efforts to be courteous, just a vocabulary with an idiomatic imprint.

What the anthropologist’s voice can lay bare about the staged political catharsis chronicled in Smith’s account of how Pocahontas formally, vividly, theatrically, with her own body spared his life, except in delicate and popular revisions of his autobiography that retract the details about his captivity that reveal her gesture was in the script and so restore the full emotional force of political commitment to the ritual and valorize Powhatan’s use of perception war through his youngest daughter’s life, is the secular social psychology of religiosity about violence, its unimpeachable anchor against the tepid winds of frontier morality in a nascent, but looking likely to be prolonged, territorial war of phenomenal proportions.

Genocide is too pat a word for the outright clearing of a continent, for distinctions among natives appealed to their relentless enemies from the Old World, there was instant nostalgia about what variety of flowers of the human spirit stood to be cut down so efficiently.

Language after language extinguished like a pencil flame, purposely but without animosity towards rare idioms or varicolor dress codes specifically, rather with a tasting attitude – towards apprehending which was what while sighting for a kill. Circumstance so predictable on arrival that the military advantage was unarranged, a default position, a scattering of better-armed vagabonds across the wasteland of diminishing cultures until some order had to be called upon in the Territories because white women had taken to settling there, and absent government that proved intolerably embarrassing.

Now Smith was trusted as a captain by civilians abroad for his unmistakable fear of strange women dancing naked around fires. To be fair, among the Turks our Captain Smith was assaulted and tortured by the brother of the princess who fancied him.

An alleged hazing tradition for initiation into the Turkish nobility. He killed the brother, escaped, and added the severed heads of three Turkish bashirs to his coat of arms. It already sported an ostrich. The heads of the three slain bashirs are shown twice.

It seems possible the affair with that French princess who saved him from shipwreck or pirates (or was it a shipwrecked career in piracy?) was something like the romantic interlude between D’Artagnan and the Countess D’Winter in The Three Musketeers.


Travel as slave to Constantinople

Of course with Pocahontas we tend to feel differently. She’s the real hero of the story of Jamestown. The Terrence Malick version of how their lives intersected hints that in her country, Smith was unreliable even as soldiers of fortune go.

He had, in fact, attempted mutiny before they reached Virginia, out of a personal preference for staying in the Bahamas. Was he also an unreliable narrator? In a manner of speaking, there were inconsistencies, but they look deliberate.

He put to page her last words to him that were politic, and very pointed, and that makes his narrative a charismatic one for First Encounters fairytales, her so pugnacious with charm and him fair in hindsight concerning what was done.

“The image as shock and the image as cliché are two aspects of the same presence. .. Photographs that everyone recognizes are now a constituent part of what a society chooses to think about, or declare that it has chosen to think about. It calls these ideas ‘memories,’ and that is, over the long run, a fiction. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory – part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is collective instruction. .. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened”

 – Susan Sontag

As a diplomatic act of aggression using ritual violence, his famous anecdote is propaganda any way you slice it, so naturally the timely way to spin it was as inconstant as the status of the war between the Jamestown colony and the Powhatans.

But his are the authoritative, or at least most influential accounts about her life today. Was he true to her as a writer of her love stories? 

Painstaking elision was made in the different editions printed while she was a sort of guest dignitary, too much exiled to count as hostage any more and respectably married, versions of how they knew each other depending on how old she was and how married, not every version going to print while she was yet living – and he already published.

To which witness will the beautiful man be true?
The world must be at odds and he must choose.
How can love of beauty be wrong? It brings peace
to the soul like a reconciliation with the world.
Beauty in a man is unlike beauty in another,
men are strangers to the looks
of sudden apprehension beauty brings.

Who is this man among his peers,
handsome even in extremity?
In a strange land he is accepted as they are not,
but they find him impenetrable.
But if he is a leader of men in his heart,
his dreams must be more beautiful,
universal, an ideal form.
He could belong to them, and who could keep him?
Dreams change, but not for anyone.
They have their own reasons.
Though they answer to the world they do
not answer the dreamer.

A dream may take a man from what he loves.
And of those who love him, dreams will speak to him
as though they are still near no matter what has occurred.
The truth of beauty is an act of repetition.
Again and again and from every quarter it is acknowledged.

Does it matter? The story’s the thing – the journey that brings to life an image of each turning point in a person’s life.

Song is “Same Ground” by Kitchie Nadal

Christa Wolf has a clever way of exposing the political significance of little things – banal decisions you don’t think through that feel more private than their implications are – the interpretive attitudes you like to insist to yourself are private enough.

The ones you refuse to talk about in an accountable way. Talking about thinking for yourself would feel like an attempt to share one’s tastes in morality. Like the painterly modesty around rainbows that drives the narrator of The Horse’s Mouth to shamelessness, having failed and failed immodestly.

What looms near at home is not what you are quick to notice looms large. The local extravagances are ignored, the illusions of a built environment that casually monopolizes your perceptions exert a sort of violence on your understanding are only violently attacked from within the arts. Speaking to such choices with one’s private social circle would sound facetious, that’s why we are so content with pat remarks that are said to sound venal and conventional instead.

What is abundant too often feels like the floor of a barren environment, and looks obscene in darkness or bright light. It has robbed you of competing stimuli in your own imagination. Hence resort to the ingénue at hand, aurochs and angels each and every brat that the chaperone thinks good riddance of when the child’s temporarily mislaid. It has cute berets but I discovered its prurient interest in espionage, its precocious unimpressed face for imported taboo.


The everyday is the child picking wings of the flies found in the windowsills of waking life, playing up restricted movements to shame the makers of school room desks, exploiting his own wounds for shock, threatening to never return if he suddenly leaves, denying you privacy without taking an interest in your use of it, enforcing trivial demands with the most cruel timing possible to deny the sleepless rest in waking hours.

No tidy dressing room is immune from the tantrums of real boredom, the cunning refusal to act, the self-aggrandizing wish that is true cruelty, a willingness to kill anyone by denying everyone.

This is what makes one afraid to look on happiness in children, having some memory of those pretenses that would turn upon the everyday full of hot air and creative denial, and exhort against the ordinary with nothing but disdain. No! You don’t understand, you have too many alibis for me. Eventually I’ll confess and you’ll concede it’s all true, yet hold my confession undefiled evidence of not-knowing-betterness.

Mockery even for the artist’s instructions on depicting battles: “see that you make no level spot of ground that is not trampled over with blood.”

antonello_silveriniThen she put out her hand and began to feel gropingly
about; then said, “I cannot find it; blow ‘taps.’” It
was the end.
– Mark Twain, A Horse’s Tale

In Juvenal’s words, “Just one world is not enough for the Pellan youth, miserable, he rages against the narrow limits of the world as though confined on Gyara’s rocks or tiny Seriphos.” But the invader wants a prize for his treasure trove, as when Alexander raided the grave of Achilles to carry his legendary shield to war.

Deep in confidence, lowered voices ringing
with certainty we would eclipse the myths the next day,
we exchanged our promises like two lions,
rich in our sworn fates.

Here, when we remember all, crowns are pointless.
I am here for you in the quiet before
night dims and dawn softly collects your cities
under her long skirts.

Use my strength today, my one friend. Tomorrow
I may be beyond the cosmos, gone to you.
You can remind me now of childhood games, dreams,
future conquests, myths

We will be a part of, the captive distance
worked out reliably inside your mind – speak,
I am fading fast but can hear your voice rise
and fall, advancing

Quickly, knowing time draws down with a vengeance.
I would stand beside your unequalled brightness
for all time if I could live long enough – keep
me close when night falls.

Please, let me stand forever by your side where
you can hear my voice as well – don’t let my death
be a parting. We can complete the story,
history, myth, fate.

Achilles and Patroclus – transcendent friends,
tender, and true. Forgotten glory, lost where
Elysian asphodel shines too yellow
and poplar forests

Keep the eyes moving up, consumed in fierce light.
I will keep your counsel in darkness, before
dawn gives you your storied entrance, a lightning
bolt on a black horse –

I will see you raise a son. I will keep you
bright as pale September comes, burnished
like a helmet wrought in red gold, your youth with
you in your wild heart.

I alone can tease out your embarrassment,
tickle pride in you, set out to torment you
until you smile. We have a private life, two
made as one, perfect.

With a passion equaled by no one, peerless,
feared – but I would keep the men fearful, standing
firm, protecting their unloved king from their blows.
I, too, am fearless.

Worlds have remade their images for you, crowns
and gods greet you with solemn omens, oceans
bind your kingdom and the stars keep a place where
you will give no ground.

You alone know me in the East. Love knows no
stranger story. We are apart too, others
stand so near to you, in a circle, watching.
You can still find me.

We were right – we conquered the Persian Empire.
Achilles and Patroclus, or perhaps their
ghosts come back to feel the sun and the wind once
more, to exhale, free.

Most of what can be brought home is already broken, “a breastplate fixed as a trophy to a bare trunk, a cheek piece hanging from smashed helmet, a yoke broken off from a chariot’s shaft, a pennanted prow of a conquered trireme, a dispirited prisoner atop an arch – these are believed to be the greatest assets for mankind.”

tiepoloNo more wooden than Tiepolo’s hound

Colin talks up and visits Las Vegas often, a city advertising “lust, caution” from nearly any angle. When an actor who comes to Vegas and has experience ordering hookers “out of the phonebook like pizza” goes around saying he can’t remember most of his adult life, it implies he should’ve been punked by every hooker from here to L.A. by now.

But what do you do when on arrival the news is that you ate Hollywood? In adventure, taking for granted that you have a sense of direction (which way trouble) to work with is key, damsel or no damsel. Anyone who has gotten separated from their party on an adventure can relate to Young Indiana in The Last Crusade exclaiming, “Everybody’s lost but me!”

A few years before his breakout performance in Phonebooth, Richard Sennett had this to say about the “slick uptown kids” in New York: their success is hard to measure, but has little to do with performance. It goes to those “adept at walking away from disaster, leaving others to hold the bag,” with employers indifferent to a “past record of failures” as long as you have “contacts and networking skills.”

A bar could find its niche in Sennett’s New York “either by becoming hot or remaining lukewarm; the first means snagging the floating population of models, bored rich, and media honchos who pass for ‘style’ in our city, the second requires drawing in a sedentary local clientele,” the latter prepared to put up with greasy peanuts, Sennett says, to be left alone where they drink.


The kite’s s-shaped dash across the flag blue field an aliform, brings dragonettes to mind, salamander red and slight but this is a common brown kite in the city, it turns out early before the sky is fully blue.

Then a darker little series: annuent, apologue, arbor vitae, bagasse, atrabilius, appulse, armiger, arbalest.

A woman could serve for a map.