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I was introduced to critical theory by the works of Habermas, and although I haven’t read much of him in years (and never made it through Between Facts and Norms) I feel confident in saying it was time well spent. The Theory of Communicative Action may leave something to be desired as a theory of society in general, but it is actually a highly adequate sociological theory of the American state form. The American government has norms, mostly derived from English traditions of government and Christianity, but they come into play very late in any governmental action and although the Supreme Court has official say it’s forever unclear whether a particular action is in conformity to them or not.

In the meantime (that is, all the time) people are in a sort of “holding pattern” where divergent interpretations of what it is to “agree with a rule” have to be allowed for, and the kinds of bureaucratic adjudication that effect this are “transcendental-pragmatic” in the sense of Apel and Habermas. This accounts for the endless joy of interacting with the government, but it has the beneficial effect that what “encapsulated” parts of the government (like the security state, where you have no idea what they do and you never did) do is irrelevant to the appropriate course of action for individuals not involved in them.

This is culturally reflected in the tenor of US propaganda, which has always really been quite ambiguous. We’ve had a little bit of “government camp” here, but since the processes it is advertising have no inherent normative telos (except perhaps a “discourse ethics” of individual freedom) the only sense in which such pronunciamentos are meaningful is as communicative a priori structures rational behavior in the US must be somehow in accord with. Do you want to “Fly Like An Eagle” with the US Postal Service? Flap your wings, soar intellectually, or mail a damn letter.

In other words, anything you wanted to say and do that practically conforms with these suggested norms (that is, the furtherance of communicative rationality and social action compatible with that) would be okay. If you think that’s going to be a problem for you, maybe it is; and if someone’s telling you not to say something, or you’re telling someone not to say something, this might not be an “American League”-sanctioned baseball game we’re talking about. So sociology sometimes does teach valuable lessons.

Here’s something I wouldn’t have thought worth mentioning a few years ago: the early “electric” Bob Dylan records are great. As “we” get further away from them in time and space, Dylan’s achievement in turning from the Sing Out crowd and Americans for Democratic action to neon Beats and carefully composed nonsense (a brilliant variation on what you could hear from a lot of people of that era) can be underestimated. Here are three selections from the first three electric albums Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home, and Blonde On Blonde.

From A Buick 6

Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream

Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine

It’s the early 1900s, and “bullshit” is coming into fashion as a derogatory term. In what contemporary environment would you encounter bull shit, and why would you not want to?


Kit, I’m not enamored of the word “bullshit”, and one of the reasons I’m not enamored is that I’ve recently come to suspect the origins of the term are lost to the contemporary mind. Since (as you would well know) manure is a valuable commodity on the farm, it would have to be some other context in which “bullshit” was a problem: and my strong suspicion is that that context was a slaughterhouse, where cows are shitting on the floor and, unless the grating works really well, you’re going to slip and fall. This would rather sensibly make “bullshit” garbage people say to get you in trouble at work, rather than some ethereally perceived cognitive failing (as it has recently been construed).

Here’s a “low-rent” lifestyle choice I’m less than enthusiastic about recommending, but the reasons why it might potentially be something worth doing are worth pondering. I’ve always believed that tobacco smoking was a bad choice: two of my grandparents died from smoking-related illnesses (at relatively advanced ages, though), and I’m more than a little informed about all the stuff tobacco smoke does to your body. Still, I really enjoy cigarette smoking. I find it very relaxing, and sharing a cigarette with someone is (as Mencken and George Jean Nathan noted seventy years ago) a great way to create a democratic bond. It’s also legal and not really dangerous for other people if you don’t smoke inside, as I haven’t for years. However, due to the public-health push to get people off the stuff prices have risen quite a bit (though the prices in Oregon are among the lowest in the “developed” world).

Although it’s probably not the outcome public-health advocates would hope for, a way to halve your tobacco costs is to roll your own cigarettes. There are a lot of different brands and types of rolling tobacco; but the traditional “mainstays” of American rolling tobacco, Bugler and Top, are so terrible and “premium” products so reasonably priced that it makes sense to go to a tobacconist and buy something a little nicer. Those products basically come in two kinds: “dark” European tobacco, which is of a different variety than the tobacco in American packaged cigarettes, and “golden” tobacco (usually mixtures of Virginia, Burley, and Turkish tobacco). There are brands like Drum and the Peter Stokkebye products, but you might as well see if the tobacconist sells their own blends. It takes a little bit of practice to get good enough at rolling cigarettes to be satisfied with the results, but once you have it down you’ll have joined the American bummler mainstream.

Now, unfiltered cigarettes are significantly more dangerous than filtered cigarettes regarding the risk of lung cancer and emphysema (although they deliver more nicotine, heart attack risk with any kind of cigarette smoking is so significant for it to be more or less a wash), but if you are young and healthy and can’t stand not to smoke you might be advised to save the money you’re “burning” every day on packaged cigarettes and invest it in something else that might potentially help you in life. It’s also possible to buy “injector” equipment and cigarette tubes and make your own filtered cigarettes, but this is a strange economic phenomenon: there’s really no reason at all anyone should make their own filtered cigarettes except to avoid taxes (there’s a whole body of theory and experimental evidence relating to excise taxes and their interrelation with smoking rates, but this seems to have gone unnoticed).

UPDATE (April 2009): As of April 1st, the golden age of the rollie in the US drew to a close. A SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Plan) tax increase, which was passed almost immediately upon the ascension of Obama to the Presidency sensibly raised the tax on rolling tobacco to the point it became as expensive as filtered pack cigarettes — i.e., a net price increase of approximately 300%. Due to this, rolling tobacco is quickly being removed from tobacco store aisles, with the exception of a packet of Drum or two. If the unpleasant twinge in my lung goes away, I won’t be sorry that I got a chance to spend my limited income on things other than tobacco; the difference between “no money” and “limited money” is a very big one indeed for people in the bottom tax bracket. If it goes away.

Feelin’ good today — I smoothed over some difficulties in the inimitable Rubard fashion. I am so dumb, but relatively sane.

I didn’t do Music Monday last week: I just wasn’t feeling like it. But this week, I’d like to direct your attention to a media form many people may not have paid much attention to, hip-hop “mixtapes”. Of course you can buy rap records in the stores or online, but that’s not the whole story of the “effective cultural history” of the medium. There’s a more public face to the genre with videos and Top 40 songs, which reach a larger audience in clubs and on the radio, and then there’s the less public face of the semi-samizdat recordings DJs and the actual artists themselves release separately from the fully commercial records. Though we all know the regular mixtape was a way for sodden youth to express their emotions, the cultural function of the hip-hop mixtape is quite different: it’s a cultural channel distinct from the “mainstream” music industry.

Real “heads” often pay as much attention to these as the regular records: since they don’t obey the legal code for sample clearance that evolved in the ’80s the sonic aesthetic is quite distinct, and the artists say just exactly what they want. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these mixtapes are available on the Internet — HipHopDX is a convenient way to listen to them, although MP3s can be acquired rather easily. Is this legal, or ethical? Well, you can buy mixtapes at independent record stores, and sometimes some of the money actually goes to the artist, but since they are not strictly speaking legitimate releases they aren’t available at Best Buy or ITunes. However, to get rid of them the RIAA would have to sue its own artists: I guess you could say someone was doing you a favor by making them available.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

William Carlos Williams

Here’s a relatively fresh thought. What is the essence of European culture? Although any such classification is liable to be tilting at windmills, I’m recently captured by the idea that Europeanness is defined by an overriding concern with being. After all, Europeans invented the concept of being, and European thought and science remain the dominant definitions of what it is to be: but I don’t mean to limit this observation to delineating a “definitory formula”. If you have ever known a European person relatively well, in their exalted moods they are captivated by the “there-being” of existents: the baby deer in the wood, a well-stocked table, their girlfriend’s garter. These things are really meaningless, but in their “facticity” they are the plenitude of being and it’s hard to see what the perfection of life would be but being amidst them.

However, it’s also true that Europeans and people of European stock control being for other people, and “Eurocentrism” is ignoring this and the indeterminate ontological status of most of the world’s inhabitants. Fascism was essentially a European phenomenon: for the idealistic non-European it’s hard to see how it joined hands with the better sort of European thought and politics but it was a “politics of being”, an attempt to “take life straight” and safeguard what is truly good in human life. This did not essentially involve the extermination of nonwhites, just treating them as nonpersons: Leni Riefenstahl’s photographs of the Nuba show that she was perfectly all right with Africans as pieces of “furniture of the world”, just not political subjects, and I think that’s pretty exemplary of the fascist attitude.

Perhaps we are all quite beyond that, but the question remains what remains of human experience when you remove access to “the actual truth”, legal recognition, and sometimes the material substrate of continuing life. “Eurocentrism” is the notion that these are not generalized phenomena, that the “dominant ideologies” of world history are good enough and those who fall outside their purview are not. I don’t agree: I think it’s never good enough, that rational control is always fallible and fragile and doomed to fail. Existence is what happens in the meantime, and even if we shall come into being where it was for a while if you are honest you will sometimes be grappling with the void, with non-being.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Ezra Pound

We have a shorter selection today: a 1961 “silent” clip of experimental television comedian Ernie Kovacs.

Mao famously wrote “Power emanates from the barrel of a gun”; I’m not certain that is true, since I’ve had guns pointed at me a couple of times and I don’t feel very powerful. However, perhaps culture emanates from people’s fists. That is to say, culture has always been a way of coping with “biopower”: having it, and not having it. Something that is “sweet” of you to say is an indication that the regimentation of bodies sometimes trumps existential Angst; eventually, people with physical wherewithal (from strength, youth, health, or sheer numbers) get tired of some problem and decide that their form of life won’t countenance it anymore. Being “cultured” is being able to handle this.

While I’m waiting for my “World’s Greatest Stalinist” mug to come in the mail, I thought I’d expound a little on the political conjuncture. Barring an act of God, Barack Obama is gonna win this one, and it’s a good thing, too; but now those of us who have been divided over the best way to get rid of the Republicans can start focusing on what else there is to be done. The Bush years have been an era of a lot of confusion, not exclusively intracranial: the composition and circumstances of the US proletariat have changed a lot, and the old promising strategies for political organization often don’t fly anymore. But since the proletariat has been “recompiled” by changing economic situations (the continued rotting of the US industrial base and alterations in nonindustrial workplaces) and altered forms of social organization outside the workplace — new media has exploded and ramified back on itself, while old media has continued being consolidated in ownership and editorial control (as well as integrating in explicit and tacit ways with Internet and mobile technologies) different things are possible now than a few years ago.

As I’ve said before, I believe Barack Obama is one of the best candidates the Democratic Party has ever fielded, but his plan of action is limited to a liberal economic and foreign-policy framework.  There’s life in the labor unions: although Sweeneyism and Sternism have generally not delivered the hoped-for increase in union density, both AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions have developed a lot of elections savoir-faire (which is not useless in other circumstances). Finally, we have the “netroots”, which coordinates the wide panorama of humanity that votes Democratic or wishes they could. If Obama wins, the leftist’s task can no longer be to complain about how awful that Bush is; the issue becomes taking the disjecta membra of the traditional left (which persist not only in rangy groupuscules but in folkways and cultural talismans) and “reanimating” them. My guess is that the most promising way to do this is to invest heavily in democratic social organizations, things that are not organized on the principles of profit and efficiency: everything from Craigslist transactions to barroom conversation counts. However, leftists should definitely be aware of the limitations of the Internet and the capitalist pressures it puts on discourse: “real life” counts too. Activist formations built on electronic communication have to go out into the street, and cope with what they do there.