Thanks to A&L Daily on this remarkable synopsis of a literary argument between two of Russia’s greatest writers.
Here’s a little introduction:
From the summer of 1876 to the spring of 1877, there was heated public debate in Russia over whether to engage in the conflict in the Balkans. Fyodor Dostoevsky was passionately in favor of military intervention, for humanitarian and patriotic reasons – Leo Tolstoy, although not yet a fully-fledged pacifist, could not see the point of Russia getting involved.
What was impressed upon me was the historical context for Russian intervention in World War I. I didn’t not know that the Russian interest in the Balkans was so prolonged. You always hear that the reason Russia got involved was to avenge their Slavic brothers, but never do you hear about the historical context.
A very illuminating article not only on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but on history, as well.
The Arab Spring has opened up the possibility for a new cultural and political region around the Mediterranean. Can a new Mediterranean union nurtured by shared democratic values, interests, and hopes emerge from this maelstrom?
Jag Balla’s review of David Brooks’ The Social Animal. Quit reading after the complaint that was diminished in its “coherence and rigor” when the subtitle of the book is “The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.” Those are the most incoherent subjective concepts out there.
"Statistics is the greatest attempt man has made to interpret and predict Fortune. We strive to predict Fortune, but will never perfect our knowledge. Statistics is a wasted game.
"Fortune is everything we cannot change. Fortune is irrational: out of proportion to our ability to exercise agency. Fortune is Janus-faced and a Trickster. To not wander as Fortune does was our first attempt to beat Fortune at her games.
"We band together to create insurance policies that might ward off Fortune or cover the losses we suffer from Fortune. We have called the price of these insurance policies tithes, taxes, and premiums. Yet, there is never enough to give to stop Fortune’s game.
"Thus do we resign ourselves: The Game will happen, and The Game will happen to me."
Thanks to Thursday’s Arts and Letters Daily for bringing "What is Totalitarian Art?" to my attention. In it, Kanan Makiya considers the reissue of Igor Golomstock’s book Totalitarian Art.
Golomstock’s reissue includes a new chapter on the art of the Hussein regime. It’s a pity that more isn’t said about Kim art, but there is a wonderful book called The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters by B.R. Myers. Myers’ book is not solely about the art of North Korea. Rather, his discussions of the art are fit into the totality of Kim propaganda.
The review points out that “Igor Golomstock makes it clear that he is writing not about ‘art under totalitarian regimes but rather about ‘totalitarian art,’ a particular cultural phenomenon with its own ideology, aesthetics, and style.” Thus, there are similarities within totalitarian art that demonstrate “the universality of the mechanisms of totalitarian culture.”
An interesting point of the book is the link between totalitarian art and modernism. “The crucial element in the creation of totalitarian culture was the involvement of the state, not indirectly, through the financing of culture, but directly, by imposing a ‘dictatorship of taste,’” writes Makiya, noting the boxes of correspondence from Hussein dictating the minutiae of artistic representation.
Witness shadows of Ellul’s arguments in this work. It’s the mechanisms of totalitarian culture, as well as their universality, that allow for a dictatorship of taste. These mechanisms are built not only from the technological advances that could leverage mass organization; they are built from the desire for efficiency and universality that predicate those technological advances. It is our faith in a culture of efficiency — one that fails to prize the subjective goals of human culture — that creates an art that is ultimately lifeless and mindless.
A review of two works on city history, one of which is a new book by Witold Rybczynski. Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas about Cities opens with a quote from Lewis Mumford: “The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel, or an ant heap. But it is also a conscious work of art…”
New Concepts: Status Socialism, Dictator's Dilemma
Julian Sanchez writes: “You can think of patriotism as a kind of status socialism—a collectivization of the means of self-esteem production. You don’t have to graduate from an Ivy or make a lot of money to feel proud or special about being an American; you don’t have to do a damn thing but be born here. Cultural valorization of “American-ness” relative to other status markers, then, is a kind of redistribution of psychological capital to those who lack other sources of it.”
Graeme Robertson asks us to "Thing Again: Dictators" and provides several notions of dictatorships that need dispelled or affirmed. I’m interested in the section entitled “Personality cults are crazy.” Robertson writes of the strategy of a personality cult:
Part of the problem that dictators’ would-be opponents face is figuring out who else opposes the leader; compelling the populace to publicly embrace preposterous myths makes that harder still. Official mythmaking is also a means of enforcing discipline within the regime.
To be sure, patriotism and nationalism are equal in their myth-making as personality cults. The appeal of a personality cult is exactly in that it propagates “preposterous myths”. Thinking of it, many great authors have written in this time a genre that has come to be called “mythical realism”. For instance, the Kim press in North Korea have announced “the current Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, has mastered teleportation,” according to Robertson’s article.
Identification with a leader can be a form of “status socialism,” a way of retaining some self-respect in a regime that would otherwise provide little except humiliation. Yet, though I do not want to deny that cults of personality can sometimes “persuade” people of the superhuman character of leaders (for some values of “persuade”) or that they draw on people’s gullibility in the absence of alternative sources of information and their need for identification with high status individuals, they are best understood in terms of how dictators can harness the dynamics of “signalling” for the purposes of social control.
In this harnessing of the “dynamics of ‘signalling’” witness the literary quality of a personality cult. Marquez also writes of the dictator’s dilemma:
It is hard for dictators to gauge their true levels of support or whether or not officials below them are telling them the truth about what is going on in the country because repression gives everyone an incentive to lie, yet they need repression if they are to avoid being overthrown by people exploiting their tolerance to organize themselves. Moreover, repression is costly and works best when it is threatened rather than actually used.
The element here that I find intriguing is the blurring of fact and fiction. In this dilemma, we should consider the dynamic of the monopoly on information “because repression gives everyone an incentive to lie.” Thus, “the dictator wants a credible signal of your support; merely staying silent and not saying anything negative won’t cut it. In order to be credible, the signal has to be costly.”
The cost of the signal from the supporters is in how preposterous of a belief you’re willing to hold. Viewed from another angle, it is as if the currency of the signalling were meaningless because of its absurdity. The question is: how far can you stretch belief into the magical realm? People’s tolerance is quite high. We’ve believed preposterous beliefs for centuries. Consider this poem by Roomba Mifi:
There is no god To absolve or condemn; The ticking rod Dissolves and emends. Better yet to dismiss history: The mumbling of nothings Over relics of me.
Learning together, there is a book called The True Believerby Eric Hoffer. We could learn more about the phenomenon. According to Wikipedia, Eisenhower mentioned it in a televised press conference. Ike-endorsed!
Daniel Bell was interviewed by The Utopian. At his death, Bell was working on a book in which he intended to describe “the historical tension between messianism and utopianism.” Bell describes the difference, “Messianism requires following a leader. It requires pulling everybody into the scheme of a leader. Whereas utopianism basically consists in co-opting people to build things together.”
Messianism is synonymous with “personality cult,” and messianism is a variety of utopianism. Never forget the literary origin of utopianism. I argued earlier about the literary quality of the personality cult, but utopianism is rooted in the name of a specific book. All similar books refer back to its type even applying the similarity to works that preceded it. While Bell upholds the virtue of utopianism, I argue that messianism is a necessary consequence of utopianism. In all schemes in which we co-opt people into building things, we create a Leviathan — a potent, fictional beast.
A quick review of John J. Mearsheimer’s Why Leaders Lie from the Washington Post.
Worth quoting from the article:
“There are sometimes good strategic reasons for leaders to lie,” he asserts. Depending on the situation, lies can be “clever, necessary, and maybe even virtuous.”
Again, Resignation No. 3: Cheating will happen. It might even make for a better game.
I suppose the Post was trying to be scintillating by pointing out that democratic leaders might be more prone to lie to their people than authoritarian ones are. Authoritarian regimes are the ones more likely to stay silent on the great majority of questions anyway. We expect democratic leaders not to exercise the monopoly on information that is the great modern state.
Read the article…read the book…I don’t care. I share it more to set the tenor of the blog.
My favorite Bond films are chronologically: Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, Octopussy.
My absolute favorite film is Goldfinger, my favorite song is from Diamonds Are Forever, my favorite Bond is Roger Moore. I’m not saying Moore is the best Bond, just my favorite. Sometimes your best kid isn’t your favorite.
My favorite spy film of all time, however, is Arabesque.
Francis Fukuyama’s explanation of Samuel Huntington’s concept of praetorianism: “Societies lacking institutions that could accommodate new social actors produced a condition Huntington labeled praetorianism, in which political participation took the form of strikes, demonstrations, protests and violence. The military often seized power in such circumstances because it was the only organized actor in society capable of running a government.”
The aspiration of social science to replicate the predictability and formality of certain natural sciences is, in the end, a hopeless endeavor. Human societies, as Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper and others understood, are far too complex to model at an aggregate level. Contemporary macroeconomics, despite dealing with social phenomena that are inherently quantified, is today in crisis due to its utter failure to anticipate the recent financial crisis.
Fukuyama explains that
The part of social change that is the hardest to understand in a positivistic way is the moral dimension—that is, the ideas that people carry around in their heads regarding legitimacy, justice, dignity and community.
Jacques Ellul called the levers of organizing those ideas techne. In The Technological Society he says that the ready applicability of the means of mass organization creates an authoritarianism that disregards that moral dimension Fukuyama writes of. Our faith in Progress, which modernization theory upholds, might ultimately destroy the moral dimension of social change altogether. Or, rather, it holds efficiency to be the only moral dimension worth considering. Thus can we see how authoritarianism in both the political and economic social sectors becomes easily constructed.
The concept of checks and balances in America’s constitutional construction might also be considered as political institutional redundancies. We must tread carefully in public policy on the federal level to ensure that we don’t remove too many of these redundancies — these “inefficiencies” — or render them irrelevant. For instance, is it better to return to a system of banking and insurance regulated by states? We can create an efficient national — even global — system in these economic sectors, but will they drive the ultimate inefficiency — the democratic political process — out of the picture altogether.
Now that I’ve destarred the artsy stuff in Google Reader — the piece that involved laws and treaties notwithstanding — let’s get down to brass tacks.
Speculators are now driving the commodities market so hard to recover all the dough they lost/stole — depends on your take — that it’s driving the black market in commodities to new lows. A copper wire thief in Georgia (the nation) took down the whole country’s internet along with that of some of Armenia. Armenia! That country suffered a genocide, you know. The Turks did it.
I was watching the news on television last night — it was on television so I won’t demean you by linking to it — about copper thieves who took down the whole internet in a town near here.
I’ve heard anecdotally, a word Tumblr thinks I’ve misspelled along with its own name — that when homes get repossessed the occupants pretty much strip the entire house of its contents. Everything. Makes me laugh when I watch those HGTV shows where they buy finishings taken from destroyed buildings. They could go to any number of places in the country and get new — not even distressed — finishings. Loads of houses in Florida and Nevada to loot. I’m not making a point here; I’m telling you to go to those places and pick out something nice for yourself.
Changing gears: people telling you to support bad people. It happens. Public relations is the new (to the 1920s) propaganda. Side note: the guy who invented the term/industry “public relations” was a nephew of Freud, Edward Bernays. No, I’m not getting saucy with you.
You could also hire a lobbyist, who is a fancier, niche-market propagandist Remember when ex-Clinton lobbyist Lanny Davis was confirmed to be working for unelected President Gbago of Ivory Coast? Then, maybe the next day, said he wasn’t going to do it anymore because it “looked bad” (quotes added). Well, there are people who are still doing it. Proof.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not indignant. Sounds a bit like that; doesn’t it? But, no. I find it fascinating and something worth repeating. There’s a reason why Plato banned the poets in The Republic, and today’s PR specialists are our poets. They create our worldview. You complete me, Propaganda! (As concluded Jacques Ellul.) Fair warning: I would like to be one of these modern-day poets.
Now you have to do your work and read his book. It’s called Propaganda. Ellul has others, but start there. Bernays is optional reading.
Two interesting pieces of internet to pass along to you today regarding art and music in war. The first is a quick blog post about studies conducted on music during wartime. War is bad for composers…unless they’re coming to you. “Periods of war correspond negatively with the number of artists. We also find that conflict-induced migration intensity is considerably higher for composers than for the overall population,” concludes one study. Those who stay, though, are highly patriotic if you account for the disparities between defensive or victorious wars vs. civil, offensive or lost wars. They’ll rally the nation as long as the state doesn’t force them, or is losing. Always when you’re losing. More here.
Second, a great survey of art appropriation during war time. I was fascinated by the number of agreements this short piece brought up that deal with the legality of art taken during wartime. Treaties, agreements, legislation…very interesting. It’s kind of a bummer when the author talks about the actual looting and pillaging of cultural heritage that’s gone on — by war, not money, mind you — except you get the impression that he calls the U.S. out as a hero for the way it didn’t plunder. Everyone else thought they were the new Rome and curator of Western civilization. We thought it was more efficient to import their scientists. Cheaper cargo rate.
There was a third thing that I remember reading about the dearth of contemporary Civil War-literature. Apparently all the Northerners got worked up and then realized what war meant, so they were shattered and ambivalent about what they’d done. It wasn’t until a generation after the War that a novel about the war was written. It was by Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage: I’m sure you read it once. Anyway, I didn’t feel like looking for the article so I didn’t count it in my two and now you’re slightly more able to find this third thing than you had been before. Wait, found it. I’m glad I didn’t say NYT because it was the Globe. Here's the article I was talking about and here is the author talking about his article. Look at that. Would you look at that? I found you a fourth piece of internet looking for the third. Four! Four pieces of internet.
I just stumbled upon an article called “The Psychology of Cheating” in The New York Times. You can read it here, or take a time machine to last Sunday. While you’re there, alert me to the fact that it’s in the paper. You might need to blog about it for me to catch it.
The article summons two conclusions worth repeating about cheating. First, “low-level cheating may be natural and even productive in some situations; the brain naturally seeks useful shortcuts.” I’m glad it has permission to be natural, but I’d rather say that it might be natural. The article also says that rather than there being a snowball effect where one small infraction begets another until you’ve brought down the global financial system, cheaters are often employing “a deliberate strategy.” So, cheating might just be part of the game. Ah, The Game.
Why resign yourself to cheating? The second conclusion worth repeating is that “Psychologists argue that the sensation of being duped — anger, self-blame, bitterness — is such a singular cocktail that it forces an uncomfortable kind of self-awareness.” Self-awareness is always a good thing. Resign yourself to cheating now, and the anxiety of the self-awareness will be dampened.
"Ambiguity is the devil’s playground. Let it creep into your faith life and all hell will break loose. So some say. For them, faith is essentially a battle to keep up the wall of certitude against the immanent floodwaters of chaos. Uncertainty is a crack in the dam of faith. Rather, faith deepens not in finding certainty but in learning to live with ambiguity, as we ride our questions as far into the wilderness as they will take us. Biblical literature hosts that journey."
I love books that are histories of cities. I really like both Lewis Mumford and Wytold Rybczynski.
I heard once of a guy who was proposing that cities did not grow from agricultural productivity advances, but that the city caused the necessity for agricultural productivity advances. I’m sure there’s some give-and-take.
Anyway, I said that to tell you about an interesting review of a new biography of Odessa. The book is Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King. The review appeared on the Wilson Quarterly website , and is by Timothy Snyder of Yale. It can be found here.
The review is quite ordinary. I can rarely find anything in a review that necessarily compels me to buy a book. That it is brought up at all interests me, or does not. So, I’d like to read this book, but I fear becoming a collector of the type.
I think you should read it, though, because we need to learn more about the Black Sea as a cohesive unit, just as we need to quit dividing the Mediterranean region along an east-west axis. View those areas through those lenses and get back to me.
It's as when Hannibal fed the little Asian kid some brain.
"Eventually, Kong has to go. Now, it’s just the four of us and the cat we’ve been taking turns holding. We’ve finished our sticky rice and chicken, and Kong polished off the rat, but there is a little dog left that none of us will eat. While we enjoy the last few swigs of our beer, Pete has an idea.
"Pete says "You know…. it would be really awesome if we fed the cat some dog."
Without a second thought Tara does the deed. It gobbles it up and I swear I see a sinister little smile cross its whisker adorned lips and can almost hear it laugh diabolically and say ‘Ohhhh the irony…..’”