Tangential Narratives: Notes on Julia Cooke’s “The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba.”

As a child can only be tangential to its parental revolution, what happens when the citizen is a child of the state that follows, the state that insists on adopting parental authority, never relinquishing its hold? The child learns to walk and talk in the surveillance of its parental shadows. Some children learn to escape into other families, baseball or boxing, music or resistance. Most want a narrative of their own. They must go off on a tangent.

It may seem some sort of performance is required: “The self does not belong to its possessor…A person is a mask which has grown into the body, grown one with the body” (from chapter V Person, “Love’s Body,” Norman O. Brown, 1966). A state, too, may be such a mask.

And when that self belongs to the state, is the state, revolution may become the mask. And the mask must be kept alive, at all costs. This is the state as a person, the corporation as a person. Symbols wash up with the tide. If states and corporations are people, what becomes of an actual person of substance? In practice, the further actual persons can move from the state or corporation claiming itself to be a person, the less likely the actual person is to be totally subsumed in the umbra of public eclipse.

A few weeks ago, rummaging through the neighborhood library box down around the corner, I pulled out “The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba” (2014), by Julia Cooke. The book is a first person narrative of Cooke’s time living in Cuba on the local economy amid actual persons of substance, each with their own personal narrative, all complicated by the paranoia often created by the inability to completely know another person (let alone a state or a corporation), particularly when that person lives within the shadows created by a repressive rule.

One of the ideas in Norman O. Brown’s “Love’s Body” is the state shaped like a body. Thus we get the head of state and the seat of government, the long arm of the law. And the body is huge, its shadow gigantic. And of course we get metaphor. And metaphor too becomes enmeshed in the narrative.

The reductio ad absurdum of the gentrified neighborhood is an urban street lined with posh restaurants. And that’s it. No locksmith. No shoe repair. No bookstore or record shop. No hardware store. No haberdashery or hatter. No luthier, plumber, or deli. No butcher, no baker, no candlestick maker. And the sidewalk has been swept clean of buskers. Poverty is the inability to make something, for lack of skill and resources. Dire poverty, fearsome and terrible, is a state of constant need. The one surplus is time, a resource persons of wealth can never get enough of. Persons with time but nothing else can only wait. Poverty is the inability to start something up while waiting.

Consumption of time is what corporations like Facebook peddle. It seems many persons have lost the ability to spend time doing nothing. Thomas Piketty argues that as capital continues to grow exponentially, income of persons with no capital falls (“Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” 2014). The poor will still have their labor power, but the 21st Century is already seeing needs for human labor diminish. What becomes of the poor person when he has not even his labor to sell? The block fills with Bartlebys. From page 531 of “Capital”:

“With zero return on capital, man (or the worker) finally threw off his chains along with the yoke of accumulated wealth. The present reasserted itself its rights over the past. The inequality r>g was nothing but a bad memory, especially since communism vaunted its affection for growth and technological progress. Unfortunately for the people caught up in these totalitarian experiments, the problem was that private property and the market economy do not serve solely to ensure the domination of capital over those who have nothing to sell but their labor power. They also play a useful role in coordinating the actions of millions of individuals, and it is not so easy to do without them. The human disasters caused by Soviet-style centralized planning illustrate this quite clearly.”

And one of those disasters, given Piketty’s view, has been Cuba, and the details, the description, of the specific and authentic person to person human disaster is one of the themes of Julia Cooke’s book. Of course there’s still the problem of narrative, the stories we create as we try to explain our predicament to others. Cooke lives among common persons coming of age in Cuba as Cuba is forced to change in its old age, personified by the aging and death of Fidel and the subsequent changes in leadership. The crash of the USSR, upon which Cuba had relied for economic aid, precipitates and rushes in local change. Still, the common person, the worker, seems occupied with two choices: wait for the opportunity to leave Cuba or stay and wait for more substantive change. Leaving is possible, though not easy, through both illegal and legal means. Both options are fraught with and rely upon bureaucratic and random chance happenings. And the motivation for each relies on a future narrative fictionalized in the present. Will I be glad I left or happy I stayed?

Happiness is another theme. What is it? Do I mistake a general malaise and inertia resulting from dissatisfaction of wants and values with a permanent state of unhappiness? I seem happiest when hanging out with a few friends drenched in the heat of a Havana evening drinking bad rum out of improvised cups, listening to music, telling and listening to one another’s stories, discussing past, current, and the possibilities of future events, plans gone awry and the hopefulness of a new plan. But the extent of that telling and listening depends on who else is in the room, who else might be listening. And why they are listening. Paranoia lurks everywhere yet you’re never sure exactly from where it comes. Yet life in Cuba seems in some ways accessibly enjoyable: the weather, the sea and beach, one’s friends and family, the happy occasion of food. The lack of resources, without the boundless activities that seem to occupy persons elsewhere surrounded by sophisticated toys, pro sports, stadium rock, sponsored opera, and all the latest consumer stuff, the latest myphone, forces one into a different mode of life, but it doesn’t seem the case that this mode is unhappily different from the existential mode of unhappiness experienced when stuck in traffic in your 50 thousand dollar car in the latest but still inadequate infrastructure unable to find a good radio station in Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami, or Houston, illegally texting while driving to tell your kids you’ll be late, unable to get them to pick up their cell phones busy creating stories on Facebook and Instagram. And while you can afford not one but two 50 thousand dollar rigs, you’re pissed your health care options suck.

Cooke’s book seems journalistic in intent, but is memoiristic in style and employs a creative, literary sentence structure and narrative form, including descriptive prose and conversational dialog. The book is also scholarly, researched, with a bibliography of sources and other references as backing and useful for further study. And the book is also something of a mystery. Cooke is in Cuba to experience and report on the changes in society and the effects on everyday citizens. To what extent are her subjects representative? For the most part, the focus is Havana, where she lives and keeps track of those she meets and lives among and with. But she’s interviewing them, clandestinely, with seemingly some degree of risk to everyone involved. Add to that the romantic Havana evening – but she’s quick to dispel romantic views of life within an oppressive, repressive, almost invisible regime. Practically no one she meets owns a rebuilt ’56 Chevy glistening down a Havana street. And she doesn’t hear, she reminds us several times, the Buena Vista Social Club playing Cuban jazz on every corner, if any corners. And the Cuban health care system is one of the best in the world.

Even music, maybe especially music, and art, and literature, comes wrapped in narrative.

“Adela hadn’t left Cuba. I had often wondered, in the year since I’d left Havana, if I really knew who Adela was…Once, drunk at a party with Lucia, a friend of hers had slurred to me that no one around me was who they said they were. He’d dated an American and the secret police had knocked on his door the day after she’d spent the night for the first time to interrogate him. I’d dismissed his words as boozy hyperbole, but the reality was, any one of my sources could have been someone spinning false stories of spliced families and sodden dreams” (207).

There are universal truths regardless of where a narrative originates or how it changes from person to person. That business of “spinning false stories” could easily apply to conversations with anyone here in the States.

The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, by Julia Cooke. Seal Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group. 2014.


a simple moon
once worth two bits
now a bucket of silver dollars
won’t buy a room with a hotplate
view of the polluted lake.

when all universe
was still local
we slept in the sky
now moving stairs
carry off the awful.

the moon we have lights
a dark gold daylily closed
the mope maroon dragon snapped
June dropped apples in grassy shade
a few listening pray.

the moon lost recedes
we can no longer even point to it
a pearl moon our best friend
the moon we want grows cold
our bare feet burning.



Fantasy Democracy: Notes on Capital, Politics, and Voting

fantasy-democracyLouis Menand’s “The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University” (2010) questions why forms of higher education have been so intractable against change. One reason suggested is the surprising conservatism revealed of professors as a group, surprising because professors are often associated with more liberal stances and presumed to understand the connections between one’s views and why one might hold those views. Understanding and questioning one’s own assumptions and presuppositions are important antidotes to the poisons of propaganda. Menand describes the 2007 national survey conducted by Gross and Simmons of full time faculty members. Part time instructors were not included, a group that no doubt would have presented particular “methodological challenges” (134), because the adjunct does not share homogeneous characteristics to a group of tenured professors. In any case, more important to notes on a fantasy democracy is Menand’s reference to an older study of the population as a whole.

That study found that

“In the general population, most people do not know what it means to identify themselves as liberals or conservatives. People will report themselves to be liberals in an opinion poll and then answer specific questions with views normally thought of as conservative. People also give inconsistent answers to the same questions over time” (134 – 135).

In footnotes, Menand explains the primary sources of his research: “Gross and Simmons used a number of measures to confirm the self-reporting: for example, they correlated answers to survey questions about political persuasion and political party with views on specific issues, such as the war in Iraq, abortion, homosexual relations, and so on” (134), while in “the classic study [of the general population]…results have been much confirmed” (135). That study, by Philip Converse, titled “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” was published in Ideology and Discontent, in 1964.

Why would the explanations of the average person on the street not correlate, be inconsistent, even incoherent? Menand says,

“This is because most people are not ideologues – they don’t have coherent political belief systems – and their views on the issues do not hang together. Their reporting is not terribly accurate” (135-136).

That they nevertheless vote for people and issues they think they understand but probably don’t might simply create some random noise in the results, filtered out by some law of large numbers; or, what we think of as our democracy is a kind of fantasy, but one that, like fantasy sports teams, is based on a reality, and can be a lot fun, lucrative, or provide for any number of teachable moments and lessons learned. Outcomes often include random or chance influence.

An example of the questioning of assumptions and presuppositions as important to understanding causal correlations can be found in Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (2014). At the end of his Introduction, Piketty says,

“The history of income and wealth is always deeply political, chaotic, and unpredictable. How this history plays out depends on how societies view inequalities and what kinds of policies and institutions they adopt to measure and transform them. No one can foresee how these things will change in the decades to come. The lessons of history are nevertheless useful, because they help us to see a little more clearly what kinds of choices we will face in the coming century and what sorts of dynamics will be at work….Since history always invents its own pathways, the actual usefulness of these lessons from the past remains to be seen. I offer them to readers without presuming to know their full import” (35).

Piketty’s primary statement, his argument, is expressed in a simple formula that illustrates a fundamental inequality in the creation and distribution of wealth that promotes ever greater risk of variance or disparity between the wealthy and the rest of society. The formula is

r > g (where r stands for the average annual rate of return on capital, including profits, dividends, interest, rents, and other income from capital, expressed as a percentage of its total value, and g stands for the rate of growth of the economy, that is, the annual increase in income or output)” (25).

What happens when r is much greater than g? Piketty says that

“it is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labor by a wide margin” (26).

And what when that happens? The divergence of inequality reaches

“levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies” (26).

In other words, inequality reaches such an extreme that democracy is at risk of becoming a fantasy. There is of course much more to Piketty than appears here (his book runs to 685 pages). But how might politics and voting influence wealth divergence such that r does not become overly concentrated and grow at a rate that increasingly continues to outpace g, undermining the very structure on which the accepted values (what is wanted) of the society in question are based, undermining the structure to an unsustainable level, and the whole system collapses? Collapse is what Karl Marx predicted.

Was Marx wrong? “Not yet,” says Louis Menand in a recent New Yorker article:

“Marx was also not wrong about the tendency of workers’ wages to stagnate as income for the owners of capital rises. For the first sixty years of the nineteenth century—the period during which he began writing “Capital”—workers’ wages in Britain and France were stuck at close to subsistence levels. It can be difficult now to appreciate the degree of immiseration in the nineteenth-century industrial economy. In one period in 1862, the average workweek in a Manchester factory was eighty-four hours.”

And wages are once again at stagnation, benefits at a minimum, if any level at all, pensions something your grandfather once had, and if you’re an adjunct instructor, your 84 hours are made up working on eight different campuses simultaneously.

“How we think and evaluate,” said S. I. Hayakawa in his Introduction to “The Use and Misuse of Language” (1962), is inextricably bound up with how we talk.

“If our spoken evaluations are hasty and ill-considered, it is likely that our unspoken ones are even more so….the unexamined key-words in our thought processes, whether ‘fish’ or ‘free enterprise’ or ‘the military mind’ or ‘the Jews’ or ‘creeping socialism’ or ‘bureaucracy,’ can, by creating the illusion of meaning where no clear-cut meaning exists, hinder and misdirect our thought” (viii).

The use of “unexamined key-words” permeating portals such as Twitter and Facebook, both of which are largely venues for “unspoken evaluations,” provides a contemporary example of Hayakawa’s example of how

“all prejudices work in just this way – racial, ideological, religious, natural, occupational, or regional. Like the man who ‘doesn’t like fish,’ there are the ideologically muscle-bound who ‘don’t like the profit system’ whether it manifests itself in a corner newsstand or in General Motors, or who ‘reject government intervention in business’ no matter what kind of intervention in what kinds of business for what purpose” (viii).

Hayakawa was concerned not with the “correctness” of people’s talk, but with “the adequacy of their language as a ‘map’ of the ‘territory’ of experience being talked about” (vii).

That territory is now pockmarked with unhappiness and anxiety across the whole landscape of voting experience, as the “keywords” of its mapping search features illustrate: “pussy,” “locker room,” “wall.”

Where a pussy might be an opening in a locker room wall. I had a bit of juvenile fun on my own Facebook page recently. And it’s always interesting to see what keywords incite what reaction when they trigger the unspoken. I was working with satire and sarcasm (one difference being that satire usually has a target, while sarcasm is closer to farce, which is comedy without a target). Anyway, here are the posts I put up over the span of a few days:

Trump tries to woo Nobel Committee, says, “I’m going to make poetry rhyme again!”

Trump to dig moat around his locker room and fill it with crocodile tears.

English majors organizing to protest musician winning Nobel for Literature.

Trump to build wall around his locker room to keep Media out; meanwhile, Hillary advocates for Locker Rooms Without Borders.

Trump to defecting GOP supporters: “Wait! I’m going to make Mud Wrestling great again!”

Trump to open new restaurant franchise called Locker Rooms, to compete with Hooters.

Leak reveals Trump’s locker room not as big as he claimed.

Regent University to name new Locker Room after Trump. Says Robertson, “We’re going to make locker rooms great again!”

Trump on the Issues: “I thought they said ‘tissues.’ Stay on the tissues. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about!

But where do the fundamental keywords that move thought from the unspoken sphere to a spoken realm come from?

In “Love’s Body” (1966), Norman O. Brown suggested words and ideas come from the body. Thus, we have a “head of state,” who sits at “the seat of government,” trying to control the “body politic”:

“’A Multitude of men are made One person.’ The idea of a people is the idea of a corporation, and the idea of a corporation is the idea of a juristic person. ‘This is more than Consent, or Concord: it is a reall Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person.’ Out of many, one: a logical impossibility; a piece of poetry, or symbolism; an enacted or incarnate metaphor; a poetic creation. The Commonwealth is ‘an Artificial Man,’ a body politic, ‘in which,’ the Soveraignty is an ‘Artificial Soul; the Magistrates, and other Officers of Judicature and Execution, artificiall Joynts,” etc. Does this ‘Artificiall Man,’ this ‘Feigned or Artificiall Person, make ‘a real Unitie of them all”? Are juristic persons real, or only legal fictions, personae fictae? ‘Analogy with the living person and shift of meaning are the essence of the mode of legal statement which refers to corporate bodies.’ Is the shift of meaning real? Does the metaphor accomplish a metamorphosis? ‘The Pacts and Covenants, by which the parts of this Body Politique were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that Fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.” Or like the hoc est corpus meum, This is my body, pronounced by God in the Redemption. Is there a real transubstantiation? Is there a miracle in the communion of the mortal God, the great leviathan; a miracle which gives life to the individual communicants also? For so-called ‘real,’ ‘living,’ ‘natural’ persons, individual persons, are not natural but juristic persons, personae fictae, social creations, no more real than corporations.”

Hobbes, Leviathan, 3-4, 136, 143.
Wolff, “On the Nature of Legal Persons.” Hart, “Definition and Theory in Jurisprudence.

Things to Do in the Twenty-First Century

CapitalI had thought Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” would be one of those books I would continue to read about but would probably not read first-hand. At 685 pages, its great strength data, its cost new $39.95 (speaking of wealth and distribution), the French economist’s thick tome was not on my list of books to keep an eye out for, let alone add to one of the several stacks of books to read already piled about the house. Piketty’s book is a stack of its own.

In an Isaac Chotiner interview with Piketty at the New Republic , Piketty himself speaks to to the difficulty of reading such books:

IC: Can you talk a little bit about the effect of Marx on your thinking and how you came to start reading him?

TP: Marx?

IC: Yeah.

TP: I never managed really to read it. I mean I don’t know if you’ve tried to read it. Have you tried?

IC: Some of his essays, but not the economics work.

TP:The Communist Manifesto of 1848 is a short and strong piece. Das Kapital, I think, is very difficult to read and for me it was not very influential.

IC: Because your book, obviously with the title, it seemed like you were tipping your hat to him in some ways.

TP: No not at all, not at all! The big difference is that my book is a book about the history of capital. In the books of Marx there’s no data.

But I was wrong. First, fortune brought “Capital” my way. I was walking down to a distant mailbox (like newspapers disappearing, so too are the neighborhood mailboxes). On my way, I looked into our local library box. Only about five or six books. The Believer magazines I’d dropped off the other night were gone. But there at the end of the top shelf in the library box was Piketty’s “Capital.” I picked it up. Looked unread, brand new. Weighed about five pounds. Would it still be there in the box when I got back from dropping off my mail? I glanced through it. Couldn’t take that chance. Not with this kind of fortune. So I walked away with it, feeling a bit guilty though because I knew I might not actually read it, those stacks of unread books about the house already weighing upon me like a seven course meal when you’re not really all that hungry to begin with.

But I was wrong. Second, the book is not all that hard a read. While it probably won’t make anyone’s top ten common reader list, Piketty’s book is clearly written, concise, with well-wrought sentences, and full of remarkable insights and surprises. Consider this paragraph, the subject of which (experiential, anecdotal, or empirical data) revitalizes the current humanities in crisis folderol. Piketty says,

Intellectual and political debate about the distribution of wealth has long been based on an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact.

To be sure, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of the intuitive knowledge that everyone acquires about contemporary wealth and income levels, even in the absence of any theoretical framework or statistical analysis. Film and literature, nineteenth-century novels especially, are full of detailed information about the relative wealth and living standards of different social groups, and especially about the deep structure of inequality, the way it is justified, and its impact on individual lives. Indeed, the novels of Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac paint striking portraits of the distribution of wealth in Britain and France between 1790 and 1830. Both novelists were intimately acquainted with the hierarchy of wealth in their respective societies. They grasped the hidden contours of wealth and its inevitable implications for the lives of men and women, including their marital strategies and personal hopes and disappointments. These and other novelists depicted the effects of inequality with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match.

Indeed, the distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers. It is of interest to everyone, and that is a good thing (p. 2, Introduction, A Debate without Data?).

And we learn on page 24 of Piketty’s book (Figure I.I) that income inequality in the United States (1919-2010) was at its lowest between the years 1950 to 1980. From 1980 to today, income inequality in the US has grown steadily, and is now higher than it was during the Great Depression years. Those 30 years of comparative stability (1950-1980) allowed for a sharing of accumulation of capital and knowledge unprecedented and not seen since. The US working class achieved a remarkable degree of middle class provisions, its children went to college in unprecedented numbers, without incurring today’s debt for education, but today nearing or in retirement may be returning to its roots.

 Today’s library box held only three books, none of which I picked up: “A Nun on the Bus”; “Jesus for President”; and “Bernie Sanders: an Outsider in the White House.”