Nine twists in the kaleidoscope of “our highly volatile conjuncture”

New York City is closer along value dimensions to Berlin than both are to their country-sides. The existence of an unfettered, reputable and authoritative news media is a contemporary anomaly. Reversion to the mean isn’t replication of the same.

Hegel’s “tarry with the negative” is all well and good as long as it’s tarrying. Imagination is like luck, which much of imagination is anyway: easier to focus on in the past tense. We’ll look back at “progress” relegated to the scare quotes of always-late capitalism as the easiest thing humans did in the Anthropocene. Irony is more a knowingness than knowledge, as when: quoting Wittgenstein that death is not an event in life rather than Rilke about death being the part of life turned away from us.

The certainty of uncertainty is for some a 21st century version of 19th century positivism. Complexity doesn’t annihilate life; it is life. Still: bring back “blunder,” as in “monstrously bungled policy,” as when: the FBI thought Jean-Paul Sartre was complicit in the assassination of JFK.

“I have never asked that all trees have one bark” (“Ich habe nie verlangt,/ Dass allen Bäumen eine Rinde wachse”) Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Nathan the Wise


Each angel is its own species, Thomas Aquinas tells us. “Why mightn’t there be, somehow, a new science for every object?,” asks Roland Barthes. Rimbaud puts it, ‘I am of an inferior race for all eternity.’ In those I see the rightness and certainty I also find in the lines of A.R. Ammons:

though I
have not been here long, I can
look up at the sky at night and tell
how things are likely to go for
the next hundred million years:
the universe will probably not find
a way to vanish nor I
in all that time reappear.

Why not each its own science and species, here-now or having-been for the rest of eternity?


Is the sense of incompleteness the felt part of an irreducible particularity of being?

“The [French] Constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, was made for man. But there is no such thing as man in the world. In my lifetime I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; thanks to Montesquieu, I even know that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare that I have never in my life met him; if he exists he is unknown to me,” declared conservative critic, Joseph de Maistre.

Or the more recent lines of poet, Fernando Pessoa,

They spoke to me of people, and of humanity.
But I’ve never seen people, or humanity.
I’ve seen various people, astonishingly dissimilar,
Each separated from the next by an unpeopled space

Lionel Trilling said of 19th century American writers “they contained both the yes and the no of their culture”. To the contrary, Gore Vidal said: Most Americans cannot tolerate yes and no; it always has to be yes or no. Though here as Robert Frost put it in his Notebooks, “yes and no are almost never ideas by themselves”. How might that be so?

“Education begins with the word no, and begins as the self-education that is called repression; this no has to be persuaded to turn into a yes,” Adam Phillips tells us, “and this requires another person.” Frost and Phillips are to my mind spot-on: Yes and no don’t go far enough, if they’re treated as ideas so much outside human interaction and contingency.

A character in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives asks of Mexican term: “If simón is slang for yes and nel means no, then what does simonel mean?” This is difficult to answer because any answer must be difficult if it is to matter:

And I saw two boys, one awake and the other asleep, and the one who was asleep said don’t worry, Amadeo, we’ll find Cesarea for you even if we have to look under every stone in the north…And I insisted: don’t do it for me. And the one who was asleep…said: we’re not doing it for you, Amadeo, we’re doing it for Mexico, for Latin America, for the Third World, for our girlfriends, because we feel like doing it. Were they joking? Weren’t they joking?…and then I said: boys, is it worth it? is it really worth it? and the one who was asleep said Simonel.

Simonel: not really yes and no, but rather not quite one or the other. I’d like to go where the term insists that “yes” and “no” matter only when followed by the qualifying “but. . .”

Consider those who are stopped short by “the unimaginability of any alternative to the neoliberal status quo.” Surely that’s a glove pulled inside-out. Neoliberalism generates such contingency and uncertainty as to undermine any status quo. It’s “the” status quo as has been understood that is unimaginable.

Here’s what is actually helpful in that realization. When have status quo’s ever been as real in practice as they are in theory? To paraphrase the international relations theorist, Hans Morgenthau: Excuse me, but just what status quo have the people committed themselves to? They haven’t, irrespective of what systems are said to do on their own.

There is feeling’s immediacy, a short-circuiting of having to describe and explain. It’s like a shatter: Judith’s high C in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, the Baroness’s “Lulu” at the end of Berg’s opera, the sound of the guillotine slices at the end of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites.

It matters in ways I can’t explain–explanation as when one reason leads to another in an infinite regress–that the music of Orff’s Antigonae captures more in and of the moment than Honegger’s Antigone. These are moments that can’t be proof-read.

So what? Maybe I’m being too hard on the distancing “explanation.” Virgil Thomson, the composer, put it that “a good critic does not voice opinions, he describes; if his description is succinct, accurate and imaginative, the opinion will automatically shine through.” I like that adverbial property of “automatically.”

But which root cause? Hegelian estrangement, Marxian false consciousness, Weberian disenchantment, Freudian defense mechanisms, Sartrean bad faith, Orwellian doublethink, Gramscian hegemony, or Goebbels’s Big Lie? Or is the root cause, in that famous “last instance,” Kuhnian paradigms, Foucauldian discipline, or God’s plan or that sure bet, money—or have I stopped short of the Truly-Rooted Root Cause?

Stanley Cavell, the philosopher, wrote that “there is always a camera left out of the picture,” by which I take him to mean that were we able to bring it in, a very different picture would result.

A wonderful story passed on by the poet, Donald Hall, illuminates the point. Archibald MacLeish told him about the actor, Richard Burton, and a brother of his:

Then Burton and Jenkins quarreled over Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Jenkins said it was a bad poem: disgusting, awful. Burton praised it: magnificent, superb. Jenkins repeated that it was nothing at all, whereupon Burton commanded silence and spoke the whole poem, perfect from first syllable to last. MacLeish told me that Burton’s recitation was a great performance, and when he ended, drawing the last syllable out, the still air shook with the memory and mystery of this speaking. Then, into the silence, brother Jenkins spoke his word of critical reason: “See?

And do you?

I use “policy palimpsest” instead of its synonyms–“language games,” “discourse systems,” “dispositif.” Why? Because a policy palimpsest is always with respect to a specific policy, management issue, or complex of issues (e.g., failed states) and at a level of granularity that matters for changing the issue(s) now, not just later.

Of course, bearing witness, permanent critique, and long-term thinking remain other kinds of approaches. They and such are not the only options, however, or the primary ones. Even when classic theories—sociological, post-structuralist, more—get us a good distance along, they fall short of where policymakers and practitioners are to go: case by case (pros ton kairon, “as the occasion merits”).

What is jargon anyway, but concepts that prematurely cease to go far enough?

As the world in which action takes place is full of inadvertence (“not resulting from or achieved through deliberate planning”) and contingency (“subject to chance”), it’s hardly surprising that difficulty, inexperience and not-knowing come to the fore and work against fulfilling your intentions.

Just as war and pandemic create their own contingencies, so too the monumental wreckage of intention—good ones and bad—unmakes a present, or if you prefer, makes a complex one where unrealized intentions criticize everything that happens instead.

That would be a banal observation were it not for its first-order implication: Even if we fail in improvising with what’s at hand, it is as an avant-garde fails in order to reinvent itself later on. That is an option.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s