Ambivalence & Escrow 3

The radish wept in the dismal alcove, never alive, never together, never more than a biting, horrid uncertainty of tubers and greens.

It had a salty heart and would never know another.


Cathleen had awoken from her rest and listened to the silence of the house around her, dreaming of a good day, and for a time it seemed her dream would be more than a dream, would be a simple everyday day, nothing special but nothing horrid either. She heard the screaming and hissing and the creaking of the tiny laughing fools, and she though of history, and she wrenched herself free of her ideas about what might have happened before the sounds came.

Before the children discovered the snakes in the common pantry, Cathleen had hoped the day would be, for once, a tolerable segment of her life. Very little in her life had been tolerable, lately. She dimly recognized this perhaps was due to a decreasing capacity for toleration within herself, a lack of sleep, a bone weary brittleness permeating simply every level of her eyes and hands and ears and cetera. She judged herself for this weakness, harshly, for it manifested in her snapping at the children and weak adults and animals and even the tools which were only there to help, to help anyone who needed help, after all. They none of them deserved being snapped at. It wasn’t their fault.

But she shouldn’t have been so harsh with herself; it’s never just one person or thing to blame – never just one of the world or myself, the snakes or Cathleen, the child or the family, the nature or the nurture – it’s always a dance between the two, no matter how much the blame lies in a one or another, and blame isn’t ever quite the right model to assign here anyway. Or anywhere. Not in the long run.

The snakes were hungry for food, and there was an enormous colony of voles hidden inside the back walls of the common pantry. Cath did not yet know about the voles, nobody of age did, in fact, for the children had kept the growing colony a secret from all the adults, even Rainer who was so friendly. They had brought their new rodential friends treats and toys for ages now, generations of voles, even taking over command of meal preparation and dish washing from Cathleen and Nadia, who were happy to see the children taking on chores without being forced to, and too overwhelmed with meetings and spreadsheets and planning to suspect schemes from ones so small and generally exteriorized from their mental frames.

But now there was the screaming, and at a simple morning feeding, that most natural of foreign policies. And Cathleen would have to explain what food was and where it came from. She sighed, but this was what she had trained for. She was prepared.

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Essay on Aimé Césaire

Here’s a longish piece I wrote over at Gathering of the Tribes about the dramas of Aimé Césaire. Any thoughts folks have about the piece are, as always, appreciated – https://www.tribes.org/web/2018/11/5/towards-a-historical-materialist-theatre-aim-csaires-dramatic-works-and-the-representation-of-history

Books Reports

I have been reading a whole lot of science fiction and philosophy in order to avoid writing, and I’ve been doing so extremely effectively. Here are some accounts of them I just wrote up so that I can continue denying that I am procrastinating.

Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett: This is an extremely fun, brutally thrilling novel that has a surprising amount to say about capitalist imperialism and the relation between political power and technology. Four merchant houses dominate a vaguely European city as they develop their power over alphabets of magic runes that, when carved into objects in the world, allow them to change the ways those objects interpret their relation to reality. Arrows told they are falling toward the ground when they are in fact moving horizontally toward a target shoot with terrifying speed. Suits carved to believe gravity is different than the physical world maintains allow their wearers to fly above walls and through the air, but if miscalculated will shoot into the air, never to return, and if runes are intensified, the suit will crush the wearer into a pulp as a result of the pressure it has been told is the reality of the world. A thief with a mysterious history in one of the slave colonies of the merchant houses is given a job to steal an artifact from a secretive benefactor, but when her allies start turning up dead and the artifact begins to speak directly to her mind, she realizes MORE IS GOING ON. She makes contact with scientists and bureaucrats and a police officer coming to understand how implicated he is in the horrors carried on by the power structure he upholds, and the team gradually pulls back the primary secrets threatening the city in legitimately exciting action sequences and dramatically painful personal epiphanies. This book has a powerful understanding of history, economics, and the ways technological discoveries are forced into oppressive uses by the powers that control those discoveries, and it is able to apply this understanding into an absorbing and powerful story with sharp and often brutal sequences of action and intrigue and material improvisation. As the story delves into the archeological mysteries about where the runes came from and why the societies that made them disappeared, it hints at a troublingly theological ontology of the world, an alphabet of true runes which allows scientists to create new runes, and a good vs evil conflict between eternal enemies of ‘makers’ and ‘made’, an ontology that threatens to undermine a great deal of the interesting questions brought up earlier in the story. BUT these do not get in the way of the presentation of the story or the ideas engaged therein, and this novel is accomplished enough that despite these reservations I am deeply excited for the continuation in this series whenever it comes out.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson: Baru Cormorant’s small island nation of kind and free and SUPER polyamorous families is taken over by the mercantile and military power of the Masquerade, a global empire powered by an imperialist meritocratic bureaucracy and a mastery of economic warfare, and a deeply repressive heteronormative monogamous society which brutally fights any interactions it names ‘deviant’. But Baru is marked out as a mathematical genius and rapidly promoted to the chief accountant of a further region and told that if she is able to effectively enforce the empire’s policy of subjugation of this rebellious realm, she will be given a position of power within the capital of the empire, from where she can effectively achieve change in the world. We see Baru engage in skullduggery and conniving betrayals while always serving the empire’s interests, as her mind splinters into the dual consciousness necessary for any spy or any person aiming to do good within a system designed to destroy human freedom. The novel is incredibly powerful in its depiction of bureaucratic and economic domination as instances of violent governmental power on real human lives, and in passing explains how inflation functions as a part of the material world, and Baru’s journey from a mindset that believes the only place change can come from is within the biggest power structure to a mindset determined to destroy that power structure is unbearably moving, earning its cynicism and forging it into a traumatized and furious anger at the tyranny of Hobbesian state dominance. Its understanding of governmental power is perhaps simplistic in its dualism – baru is excellent at economics and the movement of large governmental structures, but is told time and again that she does not take proper consideration of individual sexuality and power relations. This is enforced at the level of plot when she allows herself to admit that she is a lesbian and acts on her desires at a late moment in the story. While the desires kept from being enacted in the world are somewhat limited (broadly limited to homosexuality and polygamy in the novel’s depiction) it ties into the repeated failures Baru makes when she forgets that other people on the board are making their own strategies for expansion and dominance and construction as well. In order to succeed, she cannot treat them them as static and mechanical entities on a map or a ledger, but rather as dynamic forces and powers just as much in the world as she is. And this push to expand game theoretical intrigue into the realm of real biological dynamism is well taken and legitimately difficult to handle, for this reader at least, as the plot moves into its final sequences of betrayals and massacres. The novel is a strange mix of alt-history and thought experiment, shelved in fantasy at the bookstore I work at and sold as such, but with a vaguely Chinese nation to the West, a vaguely Russian nation to the north, and the vaguely Western imperialist Empire of Masks at the center of the story, I wondered throughout why the author had not simply chosen to set this within an actual historical period of the world we live in. A symptom of the problem – race of skin color are quite important to the Empire’s hierarchy, but the coloration of the various characters is difficult to hold in mind at any given moment, so the vague similarities these nations have to actual nations and ethnicities in our world are often the assumptions I made as a reader throughout the text, sometimes correct and sometimes not. Now, the reification of race in our world and the Empire are horrifying instances of fascism, and it is difficult to represent an oppressive regime of racial stratification without reifying that very regime, but the author’s choice not to make this a larger factor of the Empire’s rhetoric or of the novel’s visual presentation was not a satisfactory answer. Overall, this is an excellent read that pushes into a climactic conflagration that is honestly the most Leninist take on how to change the world I’ve ever seen in fiction.

The Snail on the Slope, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: One man, Peretz, has been a low level bureaucrat in the massive administration devoted to the maintenance and observation and elimination of The Forest, the massive realm of incomprehensible trees and monsters and entities and diseases at the foot of the cliff the administration rests on. Peretz wants to go to the forest but is told he cannot. Given this information, he tries to leave and it is gradually made clear that he cannot do that either. As he fights through layer and layer of bureaucracy and administration and obfuscation and malevolent ignorance, we follow the journey of Candide, a former member of the administration who crash landed in the forest over a year ago. He is desperately trying to get back to the administration but is kept by amnesia, the lethargy of the village he lives in in the Forest, and the terrors and aporetic monsters of the Forest, monsters we gradually come to understand are the forces of progress and futurity, in all their incomprehensibility from the limited beings of the present. Both fail at their tasks, but acquire a measure of understanding of the world durable enough to keep them forever in terror at the immensity of the forces they are working to understand and act against. Fascinating, humorous, and deeply unsettling, this is absolutely worth a read.

After Finitude, by Quentin Meillassoux: The only absolute certainty we have access to, the only universal truth philosophy can maintain in the face of the resolute uncertainty and fallibility of human subjectivity, is that everything is contingent. From this certain truth, Meillassoux works to provide answers to the most fundamental challenges philosophy has avoided engaging since the critical project of Immanuel Kant, namely the contingency of all physical laws, the nature of interactions between subjectivities and the world, and what it means to speak and think about a world without any thinking being at all perceiving it. How can we think about that tree falling in the forest without anyone there to hear it fall? And if we can, then what are we to make of a philosophy which tells us reality does not meaningfully exist without the mediation of a subjective being which is taking in and interpreting that reality? This book is short and powerful and deeply challenging for anyone coming out of an analytic philosophy program in the Anglo-American university system.

 

Ambivalence and Escrow 3

I was not comfortable in the house, and was not willing to become so. This was a point of honour, a mark of my greatness as a man and citizen.

The chairs were my father’s, his pride and joy – the first objects grown and felled and reformed entirely through the desires of his knotted, gnarled, hands and thumb.

My friends do not return my calls for dinner parties.

I am happy with this, for now I do know that they are not – and must never have truly been – friends of me or mine.

Ambivalence and Escrow 2

Charity had been walking for so many days that her feet were breaking through the insoles of her shoes. By this point she felt each painful step not as pain but as dullness, as a reminder that she was still walking and that she would yet be walking for at least two more hours, barring any unpleasant complications. These reminders were not pleasant, as she did not want to be walking any longer. She was deeply, profoundly, utterly bored by the signs and the cars and the rain and the bicyclists and the bicycles and the elms and the pines and the daisies and the alfalfa everywhere between the crabapple plots (slim pickings, which made for victuals exactly as unfulfilling as the forms Charity consulted before expeditions such as this had uniformly warned) and always this crispness to the air and a contented smile on every face which came across her own, whether other pedestrians or through the medium of sunglasses or windowpane. Everybody she’d seen since she’d crossed the interstate and formally entered the municipal boundaries of Cold Town, KY was unimaginably, preposterously, suspiciously pleased to be walking or cleaning or driving or working or plucking the recently fallen leaves out of the storm drains in this crisp crisp morning air. They smiled at her and wished her well, as though they knew her, said it was a nice day wasn’t it, boy that summer seemed like it wasn’t ever gonna go away, do you know what I mean? Charity knew what they meant, but gave them no sign of this, as she owed them none and did not care to spend gifts at this time in the day, however plentiful or putatively without cost. “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” she whispered to the mailbox at 1389 Fine Dining Drive as she trudged past, “I will not pay your way.”

Charity did not like this town, and if she had had any say in the matter, she would never have returned. She would never have left her small flat with her small dog in the center of Madison’s emaciated business district, where she kept her books and her files and her assorted spice racks and cabinets and did not have to wear shoes with ergonomically designed casings for athletic expeditions. She did not like these open spaces, these straight lines.

But business is business, and old Mrs. Hammer down on 23 University Court had been a faithful client going on thirty-five years now, and Mrs. Hammer had specifically asked for Charity, so Thomas – Charity’s department head – had made her understand that she would have to get to Mrs. Hammer and ask her what the problems were with her account and get her back on the straight and narrow installment plan she’d never complained about before. Thomas was compassionate about Charity’s disquietude surrounding cars and trucks and similarly assorted vehicles, to say nothing of that nasty business that went on back when she was a little child, but if she refused the company valet-taxi service he didn’t know that he could convey to the higher ups that she was really – his words now – “committed to continued employment.”

So Charity had gone off on this awful walk back to Cold Town, back to the tobacco fields and the manufactories lined by rectilinear houses, these facilities standing since their construction 90 years before in a state of mute shock, surprised that the storm they’d all been warned about had come and gone without giving them rest, forcing them to continue on as ruins of a failed experiment. The globular shipping phantasms who’d decided this town had no general value hadn’t even had the decency to wipe the slate clean so that someone else could try something new. And now she had to walk through all these people and places that still thought they were people, places, parts of the living world. It made her sick, to be surrounded by these diseases that didn’t even know they were diseases, these horrible weeds, proudly facing toward the sun, not knowing the only thing anyone thought when they saw whatever color they could steal from the surrounding land was “shit, they’re here again, honey grab the gloves.”

Charity knew this selective misanthropy was perhaps not unrelated to the hunger she felt in her belly, so she walked in to the small gas station at 1876 Fine Dining Drive and grabbed a large coffee and an almond danish from the mumbling attendant behind the counter, a patchily bearded teenager too tired to open his eyes or his mouth to take her in. He did take her money though, and Charity thanked him pointedly.

The Danish was too sweet and the coffee was burnt, but did not ask for her money back. It was just a gas station, you couldn’t expect much else from them in the ways of culinary preparation. Besides, she reminded herself, you should never complain about breakfast. It starts the day off on a sour note.

Ambivalence and Escrow 1

Dennis looked up at the sky and realized he had been hiding for longer than he had intended, for longer than the party game required, and for longer than the party had intended to go on. The sun was behind the large red office building, like a fine bug squashed out by a bad thumb for various crimes and irritants, the thumb of a toddler much like Dennis, red all over and filled with a shame that could only be expressed in violent pressure on objects small enough to be completely disappeared, completely flattened. When he had time, Dennis enjoyed squishing grapes and plums and packing bubbles and soap bubbles and the bubbles that formed in the pancake batter when his parents were not watching the pan and stopping him from placing his pudgy hand onto that layer of yeast hardening into a layer of pancake ready for consumption. Dennis did not want to eat the pancakes, when they were already flattened, he did not want to break them apart inside of his mouth, he wanted to help them become what they wanted to become. Dennis’s parents did not understand this difference even though he explained it very clearly.

Dennis heard voices calling his name, but he had become distracted by a small animal standing just around the corner of the container that had been his home for these last several hours. It had big ears that scooped round as though it were trying to listen to something right in front of its eyes, some secret whisper. Its fur was brown and gold but going grey. Its eyes weren’t looking at Dennis, but he knew it knew he was there, that it had seen him before he had seen it. Dennis found it rude that that animal wasn’t as interested in Dennis as Dennis was interested in the animal, and so he turned and paid attention to the voices shouting in the distance.

“Dennis, where are you. We want to go home Dennis. The party’s over and we’re bored now. I give up you win the game. Please come back Dennis. They won’t let us leave until we find you.”

It was Jordan calling, Jordan who had been seeking all the hiding children, but Dennis knew that Jordan wouldn’t have given up on their own account. Not on their birthday. Not at their own birthday party. That would be a shameful start to any year, particularly such a numerologically important year as the 7th year alive. Dennis knew that Jordan’s parents were the ones at fault. Dennis didn’t understand why grown-ups were so willing to break the rules of the games they themselves placed onto Dennis and the people Dennis’s parents called Dennis’s friends. If they wanted people to play games, if they wanted everyone to focus on each other and start in on a boring group activity with stakes and winners and losers, then why would they stop everyone from playing the second someone came out ahead?

Dennis did not want to go to the party, he had made that very clear to everyone involved. But now he was here, and he would end his involvement on his own terms.

3 Tales

  1. The puddle gathering outside the room wherein all our hopes and dreams and books and excellent carpets are gathered,

    It just keeps knocking, weeping, it says it just wants to sell us some biscuits, some fine biscuits for consumption with breakfast teas of any nationality, just to give us something to crust our whiskers,

    But I don’t trust it one bit, – puddles are nasty, lying, sneaky layabouts with no get up and go.

    Besides, I am not hungry right now.
    Breakfast was a monster.

  2. The marketplace of entropies always has fewer stalls than would be optimal for efficient accumulation of remuneration, public access for all deserving desires, healthy gaps, etc., etc., the variety is lacking, and always has been. Some shadowy voices clamor for a public control of the marketplace, but to place these stalls, so very empty, under the weight of the grand Center, well, it mightn’t go well. There’s a bubble, see, and if it were visible, then everyone would see it.
  3. I ate a thinking machine at the age of twelve. It gave me power over time, space, imagination, living creatures w/o recourse to holes in the ground, rooted things living or otherwise, the big rocks, innovation, tethers, straps of all kinds, the sun, safety, and any other miscellaneous organized entities not included in the previous categories.

    It pretended to dissolve itself in my bile, stomach juices, and so on, as a natural extrusive object suddenly finding itself intrusive would tend to do, but my decision making and observational processes cause it such irritation (“a job done poorly is a job done not at all”) that it has never been able to consistently and formally withdraw its coöperation with my desires for any meaningful length of time.

    I cannot say my life has been easier since that moment of consumption, however. The conduits are larger, always, yes, growing, but the frustrations grow concomitantly. Technology (theoretically, that is) should ease frustrations, should allow for an experience of broadening horizons, of doors opening, of escape from cramped boudoirs, as it were.

    But my experience since that young age has been one of exiting the door of the cramped boudoir of my childlike limitations only to discover a larger – but no less cramped! – boudoir directly outside. This phenomenon, with grueling regularity of repetition, has shown no sign of abating; I have not yet found the final door which would allow for access to some privileged realm of open privacy. I weary of ever finding it. I could eat the world, and do, but will never successfully consume its walls.