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.

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.

Online # 2: Laptop Notes From Underground

Notes from an Underground LaptopImagine Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man with a laptop…

“‘Why you’re . . . just like a book,’ she said, and I thought I caught a sarcastic note in her voice again.” Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man is with Liza, a prostitute, but what he wants is to talk to her. He finds her ellipsis revealing. She pauses, and she’s caught the mouse in a trap, even if she didn’t mean to. He mistakes her uncertainty for sarcasm: “I didn’t understand that sarcasm is a screen – the last refuge of shy, pure persons against those who rudely and insistently try to break into their hearts” (174), he says. Four pages of rant follow, and he makes her cry. But she’s his perfect audience. Had he a laptop, he would have pulled something up to show her. But was she being sarcastic, or was she reading him literally? What she says is accurate; he is just like a book.

“It goes without saying that both these Notes and their author are fictitious,” Dostoyevsky says in a footnote to the first page of “Notes from Underground,” which begins with “Part One, The Mousehole” (90). If it goes without saying, why does he say it? Another paradox. The typographical man develops a voice, even if he has nothing to say. Online, we feel a part of something, but of what? It’s enough to feel connected. In any case, these men do exist, in spite of this one being fiction, Dostoyevsky wants to make clear, and he wants to mark the difference between narrator and author. But in trying to distance himself from his narrator, Dostoyevsky adds another note to the pile.

I’m online again, going with the flow, superslow though, gliding, electri-gliding in the cerulean world of blues. “I’m so lonesome I could cry,” Hank Williams sang. But does he cry? He doesn’t tell us that he cries, just that he feels like crying. If only Hank had a laptop. How high the moon? He could look it up.

“Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness” (118)*, the Underground Man says. Later, Jung takes up this theme, that consciousness is born in regret, in memory. But how does man express his regret, which is his suffering? “The fall is into language,” Norman O. Brown said (257). What do we think about if we can’t remember anything? After reason, the Underground Man explains, “All that’ll be left for us will be to block off our five senses and plunge into contemplation” (118).

We were talking about the possibility that online culture diminishes memory because the “onliner” (i.e. someone online, not necessarily a reader, since one can go online without reading – but what is reading?) is constantly looking things up, one thing leading to the next, seemingly random. Nothing is memorized; the bookmarks are endless. If the fall is into language, browsing is free falling. But why all the notetaking in book culture? Can’t the readers remember anything? Non-literate people, McLuhan explains in “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” have much better memories than those born to books. Is there suffering being online? “The most obvious character of print is repetition, just as the obvious effect of repetition is hypnosis or obsession,” McLuhan says (47).

“I was so used to imagining everything happening the way it does in books and visualizing things falling somehow into the shape of my old daydreams that at first I didn’t understand what was going on. What actually happened was that Liza, whom I had humiliated and crushed, understood much more than I had thought. Out of all I had said, she had understood what a sincerely loving woman would understand first – that I myself was unhappy” (197). The Underground Man is stuck in a literate view. McLuhan: “The new collective unconscious Pope saw as the accumulating backwash of private self-expression” (308). The Underground Man’s literacy has turned him into an individual, and he’s nowhere to go. This is another reason he appears when he does; his point of view is his own beacon.

The sufferer comments. This is why the Underground Man “has appeared, and could not help but appear” (90), to explain why he has appeared. The browser joins the Internet commute, changing lanes compulsively but leisurely. Summer is near, and in the distance one can hear the Internet Highway and superfast modems melting across asphalt desks backlit with electric candles. A commenter interrupts the flow, but for the Underground Man with a laptop, comments are closed. Go start your own blog. I’m in the slow lane here. Go around me, he signals out his laptop window. Go around.

“I knew that what I was saying was contrived, even ‘literary’ stuff, but then, that was the only way I knew how to speak – ‘like a book,’ as she had put it” (179). The Underground Man is literate; Liza is not. But Liza intuits what the Underground Man must read. McLuhan explains the difference: “The visual makes for the explicit, the uniform, and the sequential in painting, in poetry, in logic, history. The non-literate modes are implicit, simultaneous, and discontinuous, whether in the primitive past or the electronic present, which Joyce called ‘eins within a space'” (GG 73).

“Enough,” the Underground Man says, but the closing footnote says there are more notes. “But we are of the opinion that one might just as well stop here” (203), Dostoyevsky says.

* My text (Signet Classic CT300, 1961, Seventh Printing, translation by Andrew R. MacAndrew), reads, “Why, suffering is the only cause of consciousness.” But I exchanged just this line for the Constance Garnett version of the line, which I prefer for its sole (solo) and soul homonymy (not to mention the suggestion of the sole of a shoe).

Fear and Loathing in Lexical Vegas

Over at Language Log we find a discussion on “words we hate.” I can’t tell if discuss is one or not. But some words strike some as literally offensive, or cause physical stress, a kind of lexical anxiety. This is not about disdain for the simple malapropism, or of academic scorn for the wrong word in the wrong place, but of word phobia, a word like some dreaded dog we walk around the block to avoid.

What is the source of this strange malady, a fear of certain words? Perhaps some words do have facial expressions. Lenny Bruce tried to solve part of the problem, the dirty words versus dirty minds dichotomy. In the beginning was the word, and “the fall is into language” (O. Brown, Love’s Body, 257). Lenny may have gone down with his solution in part because we don’t want a solution; we need words we abhor.

So I googled (a word I don’t like, but don’t hate, but like certain tools we’d rather not have to pick up, the plunger, for example, the plumber’s helper, knowing we’re headed for another good word, “by means of suction,” add rubber cup and we’re having some fun here, sometimes we just have to grab it and get on with things – though to google hasn’t always been this way: from the OED: 1907 Badminton Mag. Sept. 289 The googlies that do not google) “words we love,” and guess what? The words we love are the same words we hate.

Perhaps James Joyce best explains words that cause fright: “Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work” (“The Sisters,” in Dubliners, 1916).