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Fueling Debate

On Easter weekend the Big Oil firebrand and Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz released the first TV ad of the US presidential election campaign. The inane homilies of senator Cruz’s televised message set the tone for a publicity barrage that will culminate next year in the empty ritual of the so-called presidential “debate.” As a platform for scripted statements and one-liners, the candidates’ live televised exchange will be, as always, a predictable extension of their TV ad campaigns, a debasement of the art of rhetoric and an affront to the idea of dialogue.

When did articulate civic discourse and reasoned argument fell into decline? Jürgen Habermas and other public sphere theorists have long pointed to the role of mass media in undoing the spatio-temporal ideal of civic communication. Before the advent of radio and TV, they say, public space still provided a shared forum of ideas in the live, face-to-face encounters of rational citizens. But that communicative ideal has been criticized as a nostalgic bourgeois illusion blind to its excluded others: the illegitimate voices of women, the silence of the subaltern, the ‘babble’ of the colonized. Social theory’s most important stakes now lie in the idea of “dissensus” rather than agreement; more specifically, disagreements that can’t be resolved in a contest of ideas, because they point to a situation in which the forum, the grounds of speaking are themselves in question. As Jacques Rancière puts it, “Disagreement occurs wherever contention over what speaking means constitutes the very rationality of the speech situation.”*  Such “contention over what speaking means” comes to a head when excluded parties make their often baffling voices heard, and so put both language and political space into crisis. As Rancière argues, that crisis or “division” in social space is what constitutes politics itself. Politics, Rancière says, “is primarily conflict over the existence of a common stage and over the existence and status of those present on it” (26-7).

This definition may account for the cacophony of much of our political environment. It also seems to capture the meaning of the Tea Party’s latter-day putsch in the fateful year 2009, when pasty-looking insurgents burst onto the American political scene, storming congressional “town hall” meetings in order to throw the staid, civil (Habermasian?) proceedings into disarray. A glaring irony of the Tea Party’s shouting and disruptions, however, is that their raging bluster simply aped the grievances of past social movements without any of their moral motivations. Another is that their undermining of the Rancièrian “speech situation” meshes with the right wing’s discrediting of participatory democracy in favor of an unfettered market. Far from intervening in the “speech situation,” then, the Tea Party’s role in the larger neoliberal juggernaut is to scramble the airwaves, to sow confusion, to undermine speech itself. Their assault on language would be the exact counterpart to Obama’s grandiloquence, if the president’s rhetorical prowess didn’t in fact wind up proving the same thing: that one man’s righteous words, inspired by generations of striving social movements, count for nothing in the larger scheme of American imperial power. Where does debate fit into this context?

The poet Ben Lerner gives a specific date to the demise of debate in the United States: the year 1979, when corporate dollars reshaped the priorities of high school forensics, separating “values” from “policy” in competitive debates. As Lerner tells it, Phillips Petroleum, the main corporate sponsor of the US National Forensics League, was alarmed at how debates on political topics focused on figures and statistics to the detriment of eloquent, straightforward communication. The solution Phillips proposed was to establish a separate form of debate devoted to the vague, blurry realm of so-called “values.” The kind of talk heard in this forum is familiar to anyone who has heard the contentless obfuscation of a presidential hopeful’s TV pitch. Presumably our overlords speak more concretely of policy details in private. And this is Lerner’s point: the two modes of discourse point to a scission in the body politic that divides actual content from the fuzzy eloquence we’re habitually fed through the media. It’s no coincidence, then, that Phillips’ “sundering of values from policy” happens just a year before the notorious Reagan-Carter debate, when image, branding and asinine quips decisively trumped verbal argumentation. As Lerner says, “I can’t believe that the existence of a corporately sponsored separation of value and policy in high school debate can be separated from that separation in the political culture at large.”**

The wedge that petrodollars have driven between “values” and “policy” can be seen everywhere Big Oil’s destructive reach conflicts with decent citizens’ concerns for peace, sustainability, and environmental protection. It can be seen in the predatory scheme called “Fuel Your School,” in which Chevron corporation provides support to public schools by funding classroom projects in the US and abroad. Predictably, the program emphasizes STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). As the company’s website puts it, the program’s aim is “to help prepare students for the growing number of technical jobs in the modern economy, including possible engineering positions at Chevron.” Some school districts, such as Vancouver, BC, have rejected Fuel Your School, and even in surrounding districts where the program has been implemented local teachers have organized to oppose it. The controversy has given rise to what is commonly called “debate.” But in a context where apparently unstoppable neoliberal economic policies undermine public schools’ autonomy and make them increasingly vulnerable to market forces, money can speak very loudly. Moreover, as Fuel Your School won’t fund the humanities, the prospects for language arts, including debate and critical thinking, are likely to dwindle.

Chevron spokesman Adrien Byrne was no doubt banking on this foregone conclusion when he wrote a letter addressing the controversy. The text is a marvel of robotic bureaucratese. “Chevron welcomes robust debate [sic] on education funding in the community, and encourages input from all relevant stakeholders” (24 Hours, 11/26/2014, p.6).


* Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), xi.

** Ben Lerner, “Contest of Words: High School Debate and the Demise of Public Speech” (Harper’s, October 2012).

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Verbal impunity

The vernacular hive mind sometimes hits on a phrase that can’t be improved, an idiom for the ages. Once uttered, the phrase is indispensable; once heard, ubiquitous. This popular idiom is to spoken language what the mot juste is to an exacting writer: the right word in the right place, perfectly chosen yet seemingly imposing itself of its own accord, as if dictated by language alone.

The past months have seen the spread of a host of new phrases, urgent slogans of the most significant mass social moment in recent years: “Black Lives Matter”; “I Can’t Breathe”; “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Another expression, less successful, has lately emerged that seems still in flux, not having found its best formulation. It’s as if we were witnessing a phrase’s stuttering birth, a verbal catastrophe in slow motion. “There’s only one way to say it,” goes one expression; “Only one word can describe it,” goes another. Strangely enough, the phrases circle around their own obsessive notion of a mot juste — the “single right word” dear to Gustave Flaubert,* “the one and only correct word to use,” as Hemingway put it, translating.** But in a grotesque parody of that ideal of verbal precision, the new phrases often miss the mark, even as they strike a dogmatic tone; the word chosen may be neither right nor correct, though it insists that it is just. 

One-way sign_2_2

Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot an unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, made repeated use of the offending expression in his notorious grand jury testimony. “When I grabbed him,” Wilson said of his young victim, “the only way I can describe it [sic] is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” Jamelle Bouie, in an article in Slate, helpfully points out that Wilson is 6-foot-4 and weighs 210 pounds; Brown was 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds — a fairly close match, physically speaking. According to the police officer, however, there is only one way to compare the two bodies: as the confrontation of a small child with an indomitable giant. This confirms Judith Butler’s recent insight into the hallucinatory nature of “schematic racism”: even when subdued or imperiled, the black target of police violence “never stops looming as a threat to security,” Butler says. Similarly, when Wilson fired his first shot at Brown he said that the boy “had the most aggressive face. That’s the only way I can describe it [sic], it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

Interestingly, Wilson’s inflexible phrase “the only way I can describe it” gave way to a moment of verbal compunction when the officer struggled to find the right word to portray the boy he killed. “I’ve never seen anybody look that, for lack of a better word, crazy,” Wilson said. But this conflict between certainty and scruples shouldn’t surprise us. It’s precisely the “lack of a better word” that supports the officer’s fantasy of a just word. After all, Wilson’s peremptory descriptions aren’t founded on any real certainty but rather on the denial of their own patently obvious speciousness, a disavowal of the truth that yields the man’s racist cartoon-world phantasmagoria of projected cruelty and horror. We find a similar conflation of ignorance and conviction in the lyrics to a current American song, where the mot juste is not a carefully selected word but its exact opposite, the word one uses because one can’t think of anything else, because one doesn’t know any better: “Only one word comes to mind / There’s only one word to describe…”.

Like its variants in popular language today, the murdering officer’s hapless phrase “the only way I can describe it” seems to derive from the more established expression, “X can only be described as Y.” Typically, in a phrase of this kind, the descriptor is pejorative and exaggerated, sometimes to humorous ends. As such, the turn of phrase is a rhetorical hyperbole. The speaker stretches the truth to make a point — stretches it, that is, except when referring to something itself hyperbolically nasty, such as racism in the American criminal-justice system. Here, the figural expression turns denotative. A UN special rapporteur, lambasting the United States for its treatment of Black Panther Albert Woodfox (one of the so-called Angola Three), provides a well-formed version of the phrase that ends in a judiciously chosen noun: “Four decades in solitary confinement,” the rapporteur says, “can only be described as torture.”

What accounts for the apparent warping of this well-known and effective locution into the strange, limping phrases we see in Wilson’s testimony and seemingly everywhere in the contemporary mediascape? Does a similar disavowed impotence underly the quasi-fascistic high-handedness of American speech? Perhaps the mutating phrases are tending toward a police-state’s perfect mot juste, the phrase to end all phrases and all discussion, the negation of language and dialogue. Accordingly, “there’s only one way to describe it” becomes I don’t care how you describe it. Isn’t this the implicit meaning of Wilson’s self-serving justifications? And isn’t it the message sent by the grand jury when it refused to hear reason, to consider the evidence and heed months of righteous protests?

American English is always refining the vocabulary of prudery and violence. Appropriately enough, it falls to a snarling Rudolph Giuliani to coin the definitive phrase from out of the vernacular babble. In an interview on “Fox and Friends” after two policemen were gunned down in Brooklyn, Giuliani perfectly captured the heady spirit of authoritarian counterrevolt that day as police officers snatched back the cause of social justice from vulnerable citizens and threatened a blue-shirted putsch on New York’s liberal mayor. Future lexicographers may credit the would-be strongman for the expression he used on the occasion. “We’ve had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police,” Giuliani said. “I don’t care how you want to describe it [sic]: That’s what those protests are all about” (The Washington Post, 12/22/2014).


* Flaubert always insisted on the paramount role of diction in literature. “Tout le talent d’écrire ne consiste après tout que dans le choix des mots. C’est la précision qui fait la force” (Correspondance, II, 471). In a letter to Sainte-Beuve, Flaubert says, “Si je mets bleues après pierres, c’est que bleues est le mot juste, croyez-moi” (Ibid., V, 67). Elsewhere Flaubert uses the phrase l’expression juste; to George Sand he writes, “A force de chercher, je trouve l’expression juste, qui était la seule et qui est, en même temps, l’harmonieuse” (Ibid., VII, 290). To Sand again, he insists on the “rapport nécessaire entre le mot juste et le mot musical.” See Flaubert, Correspondance (Paris: Conard, 1929).

** Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (New York: Bantam Books, 1965), 132.

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Dark horse

imagesThe Swedish Academy has named Patrick Modiano the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in literature. But could the prize in fact be an honorary award for another author? Did the prize committee mean to recognize someone else entirely when they awarded it to the French novelist? The new laureate seemed to suggest as much when he reacted with surprise and confusion to the announcement of his win. “I wasn’t expecting it at all,” Modiano said. “It was like I was a bit detached from it all, as if a doppelgänger with my name had won.” The author added that he was keen to learn why he had been selected, as if he had reason to doubt the committee’s motives.

The Swedish Academy’s pronouncements on the prize winner give some clues as to who Modiano’s “doppelgänger” might be. The selection committee stated that “this is someone who has written many books … about memory, identity and aspiration,” and praised him “for the art of memory with which he evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation.”

These broad descriptions seem carefully crafted to pay homage to the work of Modiano while also acknowledging the Nobel-worthy literature of his fellow countryman, Georges Perec, nine years his senior. Like Modiano, Perec’s work is haunted by the Nazi Occupation; having lost his Jewish parents to the Holocaust as a young boy, Perec returned obsessively to the place and time of his childhood in pre-war and wartime Paris, as can be seen in such texts as Je me souviens (I Remember) and W, ou le souvenir d’enfance (W, or the Memory of Childhood). “Memory, identity and aspiration” are the key themes of the prize winner’s work, as the Nobel committee aptly put it.

Literary reviewers and commentators also speak of the prize winner in terms that apply equally to Perec and Modiano. This is surprising to say the least, as it suggests that the Nobel committee has dictated its intentions to the reviewers and requested their complicity in a covert scheme of double homage. The scenario evokes the fictional worlds of both Modiano and Perec: literary reviewers and academics may be conveying the Nobel committee’s purpose in code, or perhaps even unbeknownst to themselves, unconsciously.

Writing for the BBC, one reviewer, Henri Astier, says of Modiano’s novels that “They usually centre on young men cast adrift […] in 1960s Paris. There is a sense of threat, but little is explained.” For readers of Perec, Astier’s description is sure to call to mind the author’s début novel Les Choses (Things), subtitled “A story of the 1960s.” Moreover, whole chapters of Les Choses consist of characters wandering aimlessly in Paris without plans or projects, while undefined terrors periodically take hold of them when they consider their uncertain place in the world. But the idea of being “cast adrift” applies also to Un homme qui dort (A Man Asleep), george-brassai1899-1984-1347120376_b_2whose protagonist abandons his studies and wanders without purpose or direction in Paris, just as it does the character in Perec’s film Les lieux d’une fugue, a child who runs away from home and sleeps in the street like a lost orphan.

Works such as Perec’s Les lieux d’une fugue embroider on the difficulty of reconstructing the events they portray, which at times makes the framing narration intrude significantly on the plot. But Astier remarks that “The plot, however, matters much less than the feelings evoked by his deceptively simple prose. Blurred memory plays a key role,” he adds. “Modiano’s narrators try to make sense of half-remembered events from their youth, looking back through a glass darkly.” Interestingly, Astier notes that “The lack of clarity goes hand in hand with geographical precision – with each Paris location overlaid with layers of imperfect memories.”

These references to geography make clear that the critic is referring to Perec’s role as chronicler of Parisian space. In abstract and reflective works such as Espèces d’espaces (Species of Spaces) and the meticulous documentation project Lieux (Places), Perec, the most spatial of modern writers, took upon himself the impossible task of exhaustively describing urban places, sometimes returning to certain areas over a period of many years to patiently record what he called the “infra-ordinary.” The most moving aspect of Lieux is no doubt the project concerning the street where Perec grew up before his parents were deported by the Nazis. Perec documented the demolition of houses along the rue Vilin in the 1970s, and his notes and photographs 1933 Brassai Graffiti 1933 _2of his ruined childhood home dramatize the traumatic legacy of the Occupation and the fragility historical memory. As Rupert Thomson succinctly puts it, speaking of Modiano, “[Perec] is the poet of the Occupation and a spokesman for the disappeared.”

Thomson may have tipped his hand, however, when he said that Modiano’s books are “puzzles,” as the statement refers quite unmistakably to Perec. After all, Perec composed the crossword puzzles for the magazine Le Point, and puzzles of various kinds can be found in many of his works, not only as a central motif, such as in La vie mode d’emploi (Life, a User’s Manual), but also as a principle of composition, such as in his tour-de-force La Disparition (A Void), a novel written entirely without the letter e. Anton Voyl, the novel’s protagonist, tries to uncover the haunting absence at the core of his world which remains quite literally unspeakable. Once again, Thomson’s assessment of Modiano obliquely hits its mark: “what seems to interest him most is the gaps in people’s lives – the bits that have been removed or repressed, the bits that can’t be accounted for.”

There remains the puzzle of the Nobel committee’s motive in their apparent work of double homage. Perec died in 1982, so he can’t of course be the official recipient of a Screen Shot 2011-09-14 at 9.49.19 AM_2lifetime award today. Perhaps the committee is attempting to make up for a lapse in judgment in the past. Perhaps, in a tragicomic error of taste, the dignified Swedish Academy simply could not envision the goofy, wild-haired genius at the podium in Stockhom.






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At home in the void


When Copernicus showed that the Earth orbits the sun, his heliocentric model of the cosmos placed our local star not only in the middle of the solar system but at the center of the universe itself. The error is revealing. The astronomer may have knocked mankind from its Earthly pedestal, but he warded off an even more profound displacement with his compact and orderly vision of concentric heavenly bodies. This Copernican double movement of decentering and recentering is typical of scientific knowledge, if not of human knowledge as a whole.

Copernicus comes to mind when one considers the announcement last week of the discovery of Laniakea, the enormous galactic supercluster that contains Earth’s galaxy. “Say Hello to Milky Way’s New Home,” said a headline in the Tech Times; “Welcome to Laniakea, our Galactic Home,” said another. Nature magazine announced “Earth’s New Address,” and the Daily Beast touted “The Milky Way’s Place in the Heavens.” The articles’ cheerful tone and their stubborn insistence on the idea of “home” betray the literally domesticating impulse in cosmological understanding. It seems that no earth-shaking discovery is so disorienting that can’t be made familiar, friendly and reassuringly divine. Unsurprisingly, the name given to the supercluster puts a comforting metaphysical stamp on the cosmic discovery: Laniakea, derived from the Hawaiian language, means “immense” or “immeasurable heaven.”

Laniakea. Red dot indicates position of Milky Way

Laniakea. Red dot indicates position of Milky Way

At least one commentator has pointed out that the name “immeasurable heaven” is unwittingly ironic, given that, as he says, “measuring it is exactly what we’re doing.” But one despairs at a grasp of “irony” that can invoke exactitude when referring to measurements on such a vast scale, or that blithely wields an interpellating “we,” the journalist’s casual shorthand, presumably, for “our common humanity.” Still, no commentator is immune from a genuine sense of wonder and amazement at the magnitude of the cosmic discovery. This, however, becomes the occasion for a kind of ritual of self-debasement in the press that is quickly converted into a posture of mastery. As the Slate columnist puts it, “Astronomy is both ennobling and humbling. It tells us our place in the Universe, which can make you feel small … but don’t forget that we’re a part of that Universe, and the fact that we can figure this stuff out at all makes us very big indeed.” Geek magazine echoes this symptomatic disavowal of human tininess by first invoking the “unknowable” only to follow it up with a reference to man’s intelligence, which the columnist imagines as mirrored by a similar species aping our own actions “from the other side.”

“It’s amazing to think that Laniakea is just one of many superclusters…. It contains (literally) quadrillions of stars and an unknowable number of planets. Maybe somewhere out there is another intelligent species looking out into space and mapping the same supercluster from the other side.”

The size of Laniakea beggars the mind, and writing about it surely calls for some minimal verbal compunction. After all, when speaking of a place some 520 million light-years away — the “other side” of the supercluster — how can one plausibly use the present verb tense, as if humans shared the same ontological time as beings among those faint faraway lights, many of which are ghostly afterimages of worlds that no longer exist? Laniakea throws the human scale of space and time utterly out of operation. Our frail, earthly meaning-making loses all relevant context and perspective. One might think the encounter with such cosmic enormity would provoke an experience of the sublime.

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment offers the most compelling and influential account of sublime experience. When confronted with a spectacle of overwhelming natural grandeur, Kant says that the observing mind takes stock of the imagination’s incapacity to fully render it in an adequate image. The experience is painful, Kant says, as it demeans the mind and makes it realize its powerlessness. But as it turns out, the failure of the imagination engenders a victory of the mind, since the latter, he says, can go so far as to conceive of the infinite, even if it cannot picture it. In his account of sublime experience, then, Kant leads us to the very limits of what can be humanly represented and conceived, but at that perilous brink the philosopher rediscovers a quasi-divine force of “supersensible” intuition that rescues the mind from its mortifying sense of impotence.

Andromeda. Charles Messier

Andromeda. Charles Messier

Kant the polymath also authored a Universal Theory of the Heavens, which, drawing on the work of contemporary astronomers, speculated on the the puzzling “nebula” formations readily visible from Earth. The general belief in the mid-18th century was that nebulae such as Andromeda, which the philosopher called “island universes,” formed part of our own Milky Way. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that the Andromeda “cloud” was conclusively proven to be a separate galaxy far outside the Milky Way and twice its size as well. Since then the number of recognized galaxies has grown at an exponential rate. In 1995 the Hubble Space Telescope peered deep into an apparently empty speck of sky and discovered no less than 3,000 previously unknown galaxies. Some 100,000 galaxies are encompassed by the Laniakea supercluster alone, but this is only a tiny fraction of the universe’s estimated total of 125 billion galaxies.

Critics have faulted Kant for refusing to own up to human finitude in the text where he explores it so well, and the stakes of Kant’s failure are more pressing than ever in a time of inflationary sublimity. Indeed, pedestrian cosmologists seem to enact in their own way a Kantian recoil from the evidence of the senses. Kant has been accused of propping philosophical critique on illusions of spiritual mastery, and Jean-François Lyotard has suggested that “The Analytic of the Sublime” could be taken as the staging of “a philosophical neurosis.”* In an effort to reclaim the most radical aspects of Kant’s text, Lyotard has argued that certain extreme experiences should be thought of as defying representation. However, in a biting critique titled “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?” Jacques Rancière scorns Lyotard’s claims as imposing on the visual arts a sanctimonious and quasi-religious ban on images in the face of “holy terror.”** Such a ban logically implies a dictatorial notion of appropriate forms of representation, Rancière argues, and he sarcastically asserts that “this idea is vacuous” (137). But what, we might ask, is the idea of the vacuous? Is there, in Kantian terms, a representation adequate to sheer vacuity — say, the empty interstellar space comprising a mere atom per square meter? Can we form an idea or even an image of the “cosmic void” over which the earth is apparently perched, clinging to the tip of a near-infinite strand of filaments at the far reaches of Laniakea?

* Jean-François Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, 150.

** Jacques Rancière, “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?” In The Future of the Image.



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Brave New Canada [sic]

Canada’s rightward lurch over the past eight years resembles in many ways the transformation of the American political landscape after 9-11. Like the Bush Republicans, the Conservative Party came to power on a raft of election scandals and, understandably suspicious of free elections, has lately developed its own programs for voter suppression. There is a similar war on the welfare state, the same contempt of UN conventions, and a familiar top-down stifling of scientific research that challenges the government’s social and economic agendas.


The prime minister, hailing like Bush from a provincial oil demographic, now presides over a swaggering, belligerent petro-state that snubbed the Kyoto protocol in order to bet on an apocalyptic end-game of peak oil and shrinking resources, of inevitable global warming and expanded northern frontiers, that sees itself as rich enough to go it alone in the pursuit of its own economic interests, except when, in slavish mimicry of the US, it squanders its international reputation by supporting the extreme right wing of other misunderstood, embattled, victimized pariah states (e.g., Israel).

A major difference, however, is that Canada’s news media has not fully caved in to the market forces that have poisoned the American public sphere and undermined critical journalism. One strange result of this situation is that Canadian media often seems to be caught in a time lag, trying to maintain journalistic integrity and norms of civil discourse in a political context of hypocrisy, deception and sheer obscenity (e.g., the Rob Ford circus). On the other hand, this time lag means that for observers of the media old-fashioned critical tools of close reading and psychological analysis still have some purchase on the rhetoric of capital and neo-liberal empire.

A case in point: this week’s CBC program The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright (2/16/2014), which featured a segment on Canada’s current foreign policy. Enright’s guests were Lloyd Axworthy, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Fen Osler Hampson, free market tout and author of various screeds, including the forthcoming Brave New Canada. Enright asked his guests what has become of Canada’s former role as the “middle power” and “honest broker” in international relations and global diplomacy — the honorable tradition of Pearsonian “soft power”?

Axworthy, the elder statesman, speaks smoothly, calmly, authoritatively about the erosion of Canada’s ties with the US and the broader world. Hampson, on the other hand, speaks in the strained soft tone of someone who’d rather be shouting, using clipped articulation as bid for authority. His phrasing shows the halts and breaks of a mind moving from talking point to talking point: the tamped-down civility of barely suppressed rage. Responding to Enright’s question, Hampson acknowledges there has been a recent shift in foreign policy but avers that it’s simply based on the realities of a “fast-changing world.” He points to Canada’s contribution to the UN’s budget and insists that Canada has not turned its back on the world body. What follows, though, is language rife with revealing tics, slips and lapses:

Is the UN the centerpiece of our foreign policy? No, I think our foreign policy is being driven by developments which include the rise of the Asia-Pacific, the need to tap into emerging markets, the need, quite frankly, to work more closely with the regional security architecture, and that includes in the Asia-Pacific to promote stability in that region. So what we’re seeing is, I think, in this government, is fundamental change that’s taking place in our geostrategic orientation which, quite frankly, those who hark back to the Pearsonian era are ignoring the changing context of the world in which we live in [sic].

CBC listeners may not have noted the run-on sentence, but many must have heard, if only unconsciously, the grammatical infelicity toward which Hampson’s words seem inexorably drawn. Hampson’s line “The world in which we live in,” is, of course, an echo of a famously impaired phrase from Paul and Linda McCartney’s Live and Let Die. “You used to say live and let live,” the song begins, before taking a sudden rightward swerve with the memorable and sinister refrain, “live and let die.” The lyrics in fact seem to be the subtext of Hampson’s whole interview, as his earlier realpolitik reference to a “fast-changing world” already echoed the McCartneys’ song: “But if this ever changing world in which we live in / Makes you give in and cry / Say live and let die.”

American pundits and even some elected officials have no qualms explicitly voicing attitudes as brutal as “live and let die.” In Canada those sentiments are still largely repressed. But the unconscious can be strikingly articulate. Hampson’s unconscious choice of Live and Let Die as subtext to his screed makes Canada’s current transmogrification replay the epochal shift in geopolitics between the 60s and 70s. The McCartneys cynically made that shift in the world’s political climate resonate with their own biographies as they morphed from the Beatles era (Let it Be / “you used to say live and let live”) to a less innocent age when they could sign their names to a soundtrack for the Cold War’s most glamorous neo-imperial fantasy franchise.

The film and the theme song Live and Let Die were released in the summer of 1973. That October began the OPEC oil crisis. It was the beginning of the end of the world.

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John Barth’s short story collection Lost in the Funhouse is turning 45. How many aspiring authors and writing-program students have taken knife and scissors to it over the years?

Lost in the Funhouse

The first story in the book, “Frame-Tale,” consists of only ten words, printed recto and verso along the edge of the page, such that they can be cut out and pasted end-to-end to make a twisted loop — a Möbius strip. Ten words only, but creating, the author says, an “infinite” text, at once the longest and shortest story in the English language: “once upon a time there was a story that began” — etc, etc. The be-all and end-all of short stories. No wonder the author comes off in his foreword a bit — full of himself?

Barth’s incipit brings to mind Baudelaire’s own first words to his Paris Spleen (trans. Louise Varèse):

My dear friend, I send you a little work of which no one can say, without doing it an injustice, that it has neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, everything in it is both head and tail, alternately and reciprocally. … Take away one vertebra and the two ends of this tortuous fantasy come together again without pain. Chop it into numerous pieces and you will see that each one can get along alone. In the hope that there is enough life in some of these segments to please and to amuse you, I take the liberty of dedicating the whole serpent to you.

In earlier drafts Baudelaire had toyed with using the numbers 666; the final version, more subtle, holds off mentioning his “serpent” until the end. It’s the serpent in the garden, of course, but also no doubt the ancient Ouroboros, the snake eating its tail. Following a clue in an earlier draft about a “famous phrase” on the serpent’s “segments” (tronçons), Baudelaire’s nrf editor attributes the line to the minor poet Henri de Latouche. But he must have meant to say Sainte-Beuve, who penned a devastating put-down on Latouche in his Causeries du lundi: “His verses are like the cut segments of the serpent, gleaming and palpitating under the sun, twisting upon themselves but unable to join together again.” (The French word for verse also means worm, a pun the critic puts to great use.)

Sainte-Beuve’s snake in turn refers unmistakably to Hugo’s poem from Les Orientales in which the poet, stricken with grief over a young lost love, comes across a snake hacked into pieces and writhing on the shore. “O” the snake says, looking up at the man in mourning — “O poet!” and tells him not to take pity on his mutilated body, since the poet’s suffering is so much greater than the snake’s merely physical pain.

The moral: there’s nothing new under the sun. Unless —


Sotheby’s announced last week the upcoming sale of what it calls “unquestionably the most important manuscript of a complete novel by a modern British or Irish writer to appear at auction for many decades”: Samuel Beckett’s notebook for the novel Murphy. In an image of the manuscript provided to the press one can make out a doodle representing Joyce, Beckett’s mentor, a series of figure eights — an obsessive symbol for the author — and an early version (the notebook includes at least eight) of one of the most famous opening lines in modern fiction.

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

Beckett’s opening line to Murphy is ten words only, like Barth’s infinite story, but goes a good deal further than the latter’s gimmickry. Beckett’s incipit repurposes a hackneyed phrase about unoriginality into something strikingly new and suggestive. The phrase’s alliteration — “un,” “on,” “ne,” “in,” “no,” “na,” “on,” “no,” “in,” “ne” — is virtually exhaustive, to adopt Deleuze’s term, since it combines the “n” with every possible vowel (the second, in “shone,” being a combination of on and ne). Most important, though, is the sequence “on,” “no,” on,” “no,” which prefigures many of Beckett’s paralytic stories, and especially the highly compact Worstword Ho, where the two words repeat again and again in prose pared down to the extreme. Why do those ten alliterative segments at the beginning of Murphy seem like the vertebrae of Baudelaire’s serpent, channeling Sainte-Beuve’s and Hugo’s, writhing “under the sun” and saying “O”? Maybe because Beckett never claimed his right to the unsurpassably shortest short story, written on the two faces of a fortune-cookie strip, twisted so that its ends and surfaces meet infinitely:


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Non sequester

In the story from Cleveland this week it was amazing how a single man’s odious crime led to a spate of further accusations, as if by contagion: against the family of the accused, who knew volumes about his wicked character; the neighbors, who failed to piece together many years of disturbing clues; the police, who made several visits to the house of horrors but never entered; and the emergency dispatcher, who hung up on one of the victims, Amanda Berry, before officers arrived on the scene. And in a perverse twist of amorality on the part of commentariat and viewing public alike, even the girls’ rescuer, Charles Ramsey, who gave what the the AP called “a colorful series of television interviews,” came in for mockery on social media sites, then a “backlash” in the news when his criminal past was exposed, prompting a number of editorials on the racist nature of the media’s coverage and the Ramsey internet meme.

Flannery O'Connor childhood home

Flannery O’Connor childhood home

As in a Flannery O’Connor gothic tale, there’s no shortage of faults to go around. But where to place the blame for the lexical infelicity that had Berry kidnapped “as she was walking home from work at Burger King,” and finding her first chance for escape from the house ten years later when the abductor “went out for McDonald’s“?





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High importance

With the long-dreaded “sequester” upon us, the United States is suffering the kind of ruthless federal cost-cutting that has sparked protests, riots and other mass actions across Europe. Stateside, the response to austerity has been comparatively muted, though. The US national media have managed to distract the public from the social costs of the crisis, harping on the White House’s cutting back on public tours as if austerity amounted to mere political theater, its only victims civic-minded tourists. Meanwhile, what’s most important in this unfolding disaster goes unreported.

What is most important in this story? What truly deserves reporting? Certainly those cases where budget cuts pose an immediate and substantial risk to people’s health and life prospects. A graphic example: Head Start, the federally-funded preschool program for the children of disadvantaged families.

Blackboard_2In Washington County, Arkansas, Head Start has made drastic cutbacks to services in order to balance their newly-diminished budget, notably by shuttering classrooms two weeks early this spring. The early closure is expected to leave poor working families in the lurch, as their children will not only be without schooling, but will lack safe and reliable day care, health services and a regular source of decent food. According to Brenda Zedlitz, Head Start’s local program director:

This is going to severely impact their daily lives because for 13 days they won’t have a place to go. We serve the working poor. Where are their children going to go when they are at work? Does this mean that they will leave their children with caregivers who might not be appropriate? Mostly [sic], what does this mean to the well-being of that child? (Huffington Post, 3/21/13)

In a time of cutbacks, downsizing and streamlining, one employee does the work of two. This logic of increased efficiency trickles down even into our speech. “Mostly,” Ms. Zedlitz pointedly says, “what does this mean to the well-being of that child?” Her question coins a term that does the work of two: mostly, a hybrid mash-up of the words most importantly, but trimmed down to size — proving that even those words whose job it is to say what’s most important have to bend to the reigning logic of austerity.


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Twitter Imbroglio

It was raining in Rome, foretaste of early spring, when the papal conclave announced yesterday the election of a new pope. In Buenos Aires it was already dark, an autumn night with a touch of winter in the air. The faithful are notImage

late-night carousers; Argentinians went to bed as normal, but their dreams were likely disturbed by the news and in anticipation of the next day’s celebration of their native pontiff. Come morning, some odd stories began to circulate.

Although the Vatican is no stranger to conspiracy plots and occult fabrication, the Argentine connection gave the stories this morning a peculiar twist. In the dreaming minds of his compatriots, Pope Francisco, or Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was apparently mixed up with that other illustrious Argentinian, whose name he echoes: Jorge Francisco Luis Borges. By 6:00 am this morning in Buenos Aires, Twitter’s #BorgesBergo was trending with speculation about genealogical connections and possible arcane links between the Pope and the Maestro.

Some of these findings: the two names “Bergo” and “Borges” have transposed vowels, suggesting a kind of mirror-play; @qualquier979 claims that the supplemental “s” in Borges’ name is a sign of this inverted reflection. As for the additional “glio” in Bergoglio, @cariño1985 pointed out that the letters spell out a gnomic phrase in Italian: “Gli O,” in other words, “The Os.” But who or what would these “O”s be? Traffic is very heavy at #Os?, where the potential meanings of that suggestive phrase are being feverishly discussed.

The most disturbing hypotheses are inspired by Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In that story, Dr. Yu Tsun, a descendent of the illustrious Ts’ui Pên, creator of a famed temporal labyrinth, commits an act of treachery by secretly revealing to Berlin the location of a British military camp, which the Nazis are subsequently able to target with bombs. Yu Tsun’s coded message takes the form of a murder: he kills his friend Dr. Albert, an event Yu Tsun expects to be notorious enough to make the headlines, where, sure enough, it is read by the Nazis as a clue to the place their bombs should strike, a town also named Albert. Francisco’s “Gli O” would apparently serve a similar function.

The comparison is perplexing, as it imputes to the new pope a nefarious purpose in communicating a message with part of his own name, inherited by birth, something he could hardly have predicted could serve that specific use, unless by time travel or preternatural foresight. Alternately, Bergoglio’s choice of the unprecedented “Francisco” would be the analog to Borges’ coded surname. As for his motives, speculations abound, but as the day drew on and the sun set in Rome, discussion turned to more secular topics, chief among them Bergoglio’s alleged complicity in crimes against other priests during the time of the Dirty War, about which there are conflicting versions of events. In this context, Francisco’s coded signs suggest a possible “naming of names” to settle past scores, or even to turn over left-wing suspects to the Argentine junta by some kind of sci-fi papal retroaction. Discussion became more literary even as it delved deeper into politics. Increasingly the new pope was compared to the sinister protagonist of Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix.

Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” is credited with the invention of hypertext — a work of infinite dimensions and innumerable possible permutations. If it does not provide a key to the coincidences and enigmas surrounding the new pope, Borges’ tale is prescient in another way; Vatican conspiracies have often taken the shape of bloated and artless films and novels (The Godfather III, The Da Vinci Code…). The frenzy of Argentine tweets this morning resembled instead the multiverse of Borges’ magical labyrinths.


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March 14, 2013 · 5:28 pm


Idioms come and go. Phrases pop up, gain currency, become established or fall out of favor. Others overstay their welcome. Tainted by some particularly infamous use or repeated to the point of redundancy, they should by all rights die out; for such phrases there ought to be a “Do not resuscitate” order.

A story in the news this week sparked a storm of moral outrage. At a retirement facility in Bakersfield, California, an elderly woman collapses on the floor of the dining area; a nurse is present and makes an emergency call. The woman is not breathing. The dispatcher on the other end gives instructions to the nurse on how to maintain life-support while the ambulance arrives. The nurse refuses, citing company policy. There ensues a back and forth between dispatcher and nurse, the former expressing increasing urgency and the latter, armored by legalese, placidly swatting away all appeals to humanity and reason. The dispatcher begs the woman to hand the phone to someone else, anyone who might perform CPR. The nurse does not let go of the phone. “She’s going to die if we don’t get this started,” the dispatcher says. “Do you understand?” Finally the dispatcher reaches a point of helpless frustration:

“If there’s any… as a human being I don’t … you know. Is there anyone there that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?”

To which the nurse replies, the words drawn out slowly, as if in deep weariness or infinite patience:

“Not at this time.”

Not at this time: Stock phrase of bureaucratese, an obfuscating periphrase meant to fudge the plain words not now. A way to soften the blow to a job supplicant, who might bristle at the word never. A way of denying coevalness to employees and underlings, for whom time means money, only less. The nurse standing over the body of the dying woman does a verbal end-run around the word now, even as the clock is ticking and time is clearly running out. This time circumlocutes the present, while slyly implying there is another time in store; there will be a chance for an appeal, a possible refund, an audience with the pope. The nurse herself must understand there is no other time in store for the stricken woman, but her thoughtless parroting of bureaucratese meshes with the anomic inhumanity of her sovereign self-interest. She is the embodiment of actuarial logic, coolly assessing risk factors to her own job, itself part of a corporate entity designed with a view to extract profit from the calculation of mortality rates.

The woman dies. In the wake of the ensuing scandal, the Executive Director of Glenwood Gardens, Jeffrey Toomer, issued a public statement in which he affirms that the nurse acted in accordance to company regulations. The nurse’s notorious phrase has an ignominious afterlife in his callous legalese:

“As with any incident involving a resident, we will conduct an internal review of this matter, but we have no further comments at this time.”


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