Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Wrecking Ball of Innovation

I have a copy of When Facts Change, a collection of Tony Judt's essays assembled by his widow and published in 2015. I'm not reading it straight through and will probably read only a few of them. I've just finished an essay that first appeared in the New York Review of Books in 2007. It is a review of Robert Reich's book, Supercapitalism of that year. This essay, besides serving as a reminder of how powerful a writer Judt was, is still relevant to the current political situation in the U.S., as it specifically examines the economic myopia of Reich, who was the first secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, and, by association, represents the prevailing Democratic economic viewpoint that continues up to the present in the policies of Barack Obama.

Judt isn't critical of Reich's description of the wealth gap, which has since then received far greater publicity, thanks to Thomas Piketty, but finds his complacent acquiescence to economic forces unacceptable. Reich takes it as given that we live in an economically competitive world, that the super-rich are not at fault and that the primary national goal is productivity growth. In Judt's view, the sweeping economic model adopted by Clinton distorted an earlier model in which the state was seen as responsible for all of its citizens regardless of economic factors. Under Clinton, privatization picked up steam and the existing welfare system was replaced with one that treated the poor as economic entities and accordingly made their benefits contingent upon their attempt to become gainfully employed. On these changes, Judt says:

The real impact of privatization, like welfare reform, deregulation, the technological revolution, and indeed globalization itself, has been to reduce the role of the state in the affairs of its citizens: to get the state "off our backs" and "out of our lives" – a common objective of economic "reformers" everywhere – and make public policy, in Robert Reich's approving words, "business friendly." 

He goes on to say:

If modern democracies are to survive the shock of Reich's "supercapitalism," they need to be bound by something more than the pursuit of private economic advantage, particularly when the latter accrues to ever fewer beneficiaries: the idea of a society held together by pecuniary interests alone is, in Mill's words, "essentially repugnant." A civilized society requires more than self-interest, whether deluded or enlightened, for its shared narrative of purpose....

In the early years of the French Revolution the Marquis de Condorcet was dismayed at the prospect of commercial society that was opening before him (as it is opening before us): the idea that "liberty will be no more, in the eyes of an avid nation, than a necessary condition for the security of financial operations." We ought to share his revulsion.

Judt describes the negative consequences of Reich's policy views that were already evident in 2007, before the Great Recession, before Brexit and before the election of Donald Trump:

Fear is reemerging as an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Fear of terrorism, of course; but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one's daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.

The essay concludes as follows:

We may find that a healthy democracy, far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution we can devise. What, after all, is the alternative? Our contemporary cult of untrammeled economic freedom, combined with a heightened sense of fear and insecurity, is leading to reduced social provision and minimal economic regulation; but these are accompanied by ever-extending governmental oversight of communication, movement and opinion. "Chinese" capitalism, as it were, Western-style. Is this what we want?

Because the essay predates Obama's election in 2008, it is easy to see that not much has changed under eight years of a Democratic administration; thus my criticisms of Obama hold. As an observer, I am not aware of any significant move that Obama may have made to distance himself from Reich's policy views, which currently seem embedded in the party and would have continued under Hillary Clinton had she been elected. Judt's views are far closer to those of Bernie Sanders, whom I supported in the Democratic primary.

While I completely agree with Judt that the modification of political thought to accommodate economic thought over the last few decades has set the world on a dangerous path, he has hardly provided a blueprint for change. He writes of democracy in the abstract when it ultimately depends on the votes, not only of educated, informed voters, but of the less-educated and uninformed who have recently brought us Brexit and Donald Trump. In a way it is unfortunate that Judt chose history over economics, because there is no one that I know of who might have made a better economic case, had he the appropriate credentials. The economists with whom I'm familiar, including Thomas Piketty, do not seem to grasp the urgent conditions described by Judt, perhaps because their training has been narrow and they have too much faith in their profession.

If calling for greater regulation, etc., isn't feasible and even then doesn't fully encapsulate the issues at hand, the limiting factor may be human cognition. Thus, I am skeptical of the ability of a Tony Judt or a Bernie Sanders to work out an actual detailed solution to the problems caused by global economic competition. Although Judt's heart was in the right place, his view of social democracy seems outdated and sentimental to me. The best hope is that we will end up with a highly regulated society wherein AI plays a larger role than it does at present, at the exclusion of mere mortals, who tend to be incompetent, corrupt or both when faced with such daunting tasks. That is hardly what Tony Judt or Bernie Sanders had in mind, but I find it a little more realistic and perhaps less ominous than they would have you believe.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


As usual, my activities have been circumscribed by holiday visitors whose presence makes it difficult for me to concentrate. Under these circumstances I imagine inhabiting a large castle and remaining alone in my chambers all day, coming out on occasion to dine with the guests. In the absence of that option, I have kept my reading light by limiting it to poetry. I am reading a collection of contemporary American poetry, and, as you might expect, I am not impressed. There are a few crazy poems that break out of the mold a little, but I tend to see them as desperate attempts to be different. I can understand why poets write them, because, as William Matthews said, the range of subject matter in published poetry – particularly American poetry – is extremely limited. I would be bored out my mind reading nothing but poems, but, on the other hand, it is still a good medium for expressing rarefied sentiments which might be awkward to express in fiction or prose. The main problem I have with the poems I read is that they seem hackneyed or mawkish, and when they are not they are likely to be excessively stylized, such as those of Jorie Graham, whom I don't think is worth reading at all. Then there are the poets whom I think of as stupid, such as Charles Simic; I always recall Auden's reference to Tennyson as "undoubtedly the stupidest" of all the English poets. Not much has changed since then.

When I read poetry it brings out the dichotomy in me between the arts and the sciences, and I realize that I don't feel entirely at home in either. I consider the arts more fun, but when the standards are set too low they become depressing. We usually watch the PBS NewsHour, which has arts segments reported by Jeffrey Brown, and we frequently find them so insipid that we turn off the TV at that point. Ironically, on one segment Jeffrey read some of his own poetry, which I thought was good. The problem here, as in most American art, is that when too much emphasis is placed on inclusiveness the bar is lowered and you soon become inundated with works of low quality produced by artists of lesser talent. In my opinion, the essay is the appropriate medium for many of the ideas that people try to squeeze into poems, and, for that matter, novels intended to shed light on subjects could just as well be essays too. The media force substantive issues into emotive packages because people are unable to assimilate them otherwise. At the other extreme, with scientific precision and mathematical rigor, even I find that something is missing, because I don't believe that it captures everything that is of interest to me. To some extent, the fuzzy thinking that occurs in the arts is balanced by the exactitude that occurs in the sciences. In most situations in which facts take precedence, science is more useful than art, but science does not lend itself to the expression of certain ideas. I think that, in addition to an intrinsic human tendency to reject the rigidity of science, science is deficient in the sense that it does not and perhaps never will offer a complete explanation for what we think of as reality.

I won't be entirely free of guests for some time, but am lining up a few books to read. I'm off fiction for the time being and am having trouble finding anything scientific that I want to read. On the agenda are Erwin Panofsky, the art historian whom I've read before, and some more Tony Judt.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


My disappointment with literature is often related to its inaccuracies, which, depending on how you define art, may or may not be permissible. As I see it, fiction may distort reality in order to create certain effects or emphasize some aspect of life, but I begin to find it unsatisfactory whenever it strays too far from the truth. Problems become apparent to me when an author doesn't seem to understand people and produces inadequate representations of them. Thus, a writer such as Krasznahorkai, whose characters are ordinary and are not idealized, doesn't readily get himself into trouble with the kinds of distortions that annoy me. He has made his task somewhat easier by avoiding the sophisticated characters who often show up in fiction. I thought I would say something about how a poor understanding of human nature results in bad fiction.

As you may have gathered, I tend not to idealize people and prefer to think of them as complicated animals. In fact, they are so complicated that they confuse themselves about what they are, and this is why I try to resort to dispassionate observation when assessing anyone. Recently I have been thinking about what it means to be feral, whether you apply the term to cats or to people. In ordinary usage, a feral cat is one that did not become acclimated to humans during the window in its development that would have made it more trusting and less afraid of them. Biologically, both feral and domesticated cats are wild, and their behaviors overlap significantly, since the differences are superficial. I think a similar phenomenon occurs among humans who have had little exposure to other humans during a critical developmental period, and later, for example, have difficulty adjusting to social expectations. As in the case of cats, feral people would in most respects be the same as normally socialized people, but they would be socially dysfunctional in the absence of therapy. A feral cat might face certain disadvantages compared to a domesticated cat, such as a shorter lifespan, but in terms of its native catness it would not have lost anything. A feral person, in contrast, would fail to develop skills that he or she has been biologically adapted to develop, such as language and the ability to socialize, and this would be a significant loss.

Like Henry David Thoreau, I think that, at the extreme, social environments have the capacity to distort native humanity in ways comparable to the environmental distortions experienced by domesticated cats. Although we are an adaptive species, we are not adapted, for example, to automatically consider all humans to be the same as us. We are adapted to absorb the social norms in our immediate environment even when those norms have no basis in reality. When you grow up in an environment where everyone believes something that is incorrect, as an adult there may be nothing to prevent you from maintaining the same bad idea. To continue the cat analogy, it might be as if you were a cat whose owners thought that you shouldn't hunt because you were a house pet. In this instance the owners would be using an inappropriate paradigm and would be misunderstanding their cat. I think that an underlying cause of world conflict today is a clash of paradigms, many of which, if not all, were somewhat arbitrarily invented before the modern era by groups whose cultures formed independently.

What this means for literature is that if you live, say, in North America, and you are writing for and about college-educated, upper-middle-class people, you may have to make assumptions about your characters that imbue them with a belief system that would be unrecognizable in, say, China. Your characters may all have unknowingly adopted the social views that first formed under Christianity, were later shaped by the Enlightenment, and, in more recent years, stressed democratic values, capitalism and social equality. Far from recognizing the universal truth of these ideas, someone in China might well be baffled by them and would certainly not consider them self-evident. I run into problems with literature because I find that it is one thing to describe a peasant in his native environment while retaining a healthy skepticism about the merits of his worldview and another thing entirely to describe an upper-middle-class American in his native environment with no skepticism whatsoever about the merits of his worldview. When a writer writes about peasants, it is a given that they may be limited by their lack of education and hold erroneous beliefs, but the belief systems of the educated are rarely brought into question in literature. I noticed this while reading Proust, who is good at describing the details of bourgeois Parisian life but doesn't often question what I consider to be the stupidity of his characters, and he therefore seems to condone the petty social climbing that occupies most of their time. I thought there were glaring questions in Proust's fictional world that never came into consideration. Under an alternate view of literature, some may find Proust perfectly satisfactory, but in my view, literature isn't of much value if it doesn't have anything to say about the human condition, and that can't be done when an author becomes so entrenched with his subject that he or she is unable to think outside of the box inhabited by his or her characters. This isn't an easy thing to do, and perhaps fewer writers should attempt it.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Melancholy of Resistance III

In the second half of the book, Valuska overhears a conversation between the director of the circus, of which the stuffed whale is but a part (no other elements of the circus are ever mentioned), and a mysterious character referred to as "the Prince." The latter is somehow associated with the mob that has been following the circus around the countryside, and he apparently orders an attack on the town in which property is destroyed, women are raped and people are killed. During the attack, Valuska by chance accompanies the mob, and, though he does not participate in its destructive activities, this finally results in his placement in a mental asylum. Mrs. Eszter seizes the moment and coordinates the recapture of the town with the army that has been summoned for assistance. In short order the criminals are rounded up, the Prince disappears and the circus leaves town. Mrs. Eszter moves back into her husband's house and confines him to a few rooms; she plans to divorce him in due course. She becomes a local hero and takes a prominent position in the town government, from which she plans to roll out her moral revitalization program.

As in Satantango, the Prince represents a sinister figure, whom some refer to as the Prince of Darkness, but in this case he occupies a less central role than Irimiás, and his workings remain even more obscure. In the end he doesn't seem particularly satanic, and in all likelihood he is pursuing some unknown political agenda. Eszter is also very roughly equivalent to the doctor in Satantango. On the whole I found this novel less engrossing than Satantango, because the satanic element is more subdued. The writing is very good, but the detailed descriptions of the characters and their activities became tiresome in the second half. I am a little perplexed by the rapturous blurbs on the cover from W.G. Sebald, Susan Sontag and Garth Risk Hallberg.

Right up to the end the theme seems to be inevitable decay. One of the victims is Mrs. Plauf, Valuska's estranged mother. Following her eulogy, Krasznahorkai describes in detail the chemical processes occurring in her body as decomposition commences. Perhaps there are a few people who might construe this novel as "visionary," as Sontag did, but I am not among them. Sure, Krasznahorkai, is a very good writer, but the excessive praise that one encounters in literary reviews is hardly convincing. As in any literary tradition, Krasznahorkai is limited by the works of his predecessors. Frankly, Kafka is boring: he was a neurotic, and his writing reflects an inability to adapt to the situation into which he was born. Similarly, Beckett is boring, because the effectiveness of his writing hinges, ultimately, on a fad – existentialism – which influenced his middle period and the works for which he is best known.

As you can see from the above, I am hardly a reformed convert to fiction. At this point I am more interested in laying bare the ignorant propaganda that currently supports its infrastructure, though, of course, I am still open to genuinely good writing.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Melancholy of Resistance II

I'm about halfway through the book and at this point have a fairly good idea what it's about. One of the main characters, Eszter, who had formerly been the director of the town orchestra and so far seems to be the only well-educated resident there, became completely disillusioned with the town and the people, retired early and lives as a recluse. He suffers from spinal arthritis and rarely goes out. His days are spent experimenting on his piano with the harmonic theories of Andreas Werckmeister. On the threat of moving back in with him, his wife, from whom he is separated, manages to recruit him to support her rather vague crusade for "moral rearmament" in the town. The town streets are littered with trash, the atmosphere is depressing, and a strange exhibition of a whale has just arrived; visitors pay to see it inside the large wagon in which it has been towed. For unknown reasons, a number of criminally-minded men have begun to amble about in the streets since the arrival of the whale. Another major character, Valuska, is seen by most as the village idiot, but he has an enthusiastic side that appeals to Eszter, and he becomes Eszter's assistant. At a local bar, Valuska recruits patrons to act as the sun, the moon and the earth in order to demonstrate conjunction, and, as you might imagine, this doesn't work very well with drunks.

The planetary alignment theme seems to represent aesthetic harmony, which both Eszter and Valuska are seeking. In her own way, Mrs. Eszter is also trying to bring harmony to the town, albeit in a mechanical, political way. The main theme therefore seems to be how people combat the inevitable entropy that they encounter in their lives. The title seems to indicate that the protagonists are futilely resisting the inevitable, but it is still possible that there will be other developments further along in the novel. In any case, the value of Krasznahorkai's writing lies more in his ability to represent the psychic states of his characters. The whirl of his words comes closer to simulating what actually goes on in a person's mind than is expressed in ordinary prose. In this regard, James Wood, commenting on Krasznahorkai's novel War and War, says "By the end of the novel, I felt that I had got as close as literature could possibly take me to the inhabiting of another person...." This is the way I have felt too, and though I can't say that Krasznahorkai's characters are the kinds of people that I like to inhabit, one can only marvel at his talent, which puts most writers to shame.

Another aspect of the novel that interests me is how to go about contextualizing it. The question is whether Krasznahorkai's bleak and depressing settings are exaggerated stylistic inventions or roughly accurate representations of the rural, economically depressed communist Hungary in which he grew up. Although he obviously draws from the traditions of Kafka, Beckett and others, I am inclined to think that the conditions in his novels aren't that far-fetched. I am often reminded of my long stay in Dixon, Illinois, and I don't think that the people there were all that different from those in Krasznahorkai's fictional world. Fortunately, I was able to move away, but that seems to have been less of an option for Krasznahorkai's people. While I was there, like Eszter I inhabited my own world and usually avoided what little the town had to offer.

I am finding The Melancholy of Resistance enjoyable to read, but would not generally recommend it to others. It is an exotic literary production more suitable for literary aesthetes than for general readers, and I only like Krasznahorkai in small doses. I prefer him to American literary writers, because even though he tends to produce claustrophobic environments inhabited by mentally unhealthy characters, he convincingly portrays the inner lives of actual people who fall outside the narrow range one encounters in works produced by the unimaginative, upper-middle-class conformists who dominate literary fiction here. Despite the fanciful veneer of his writing, he is able to impart a form of psychological realism that is almost completely absent from most fiction these days.

Friday, December 9, 2016


I continue to be distracted from reading but may make some headway in fiction over the next few days. At the moment I am pondering this article about AI by Liu Cixin in relation to the work of CSER in Cambridge, particularly with respect to how futurists in the media tend to hype utopian outcomes while downplaying or glossing over real dangers which could lead to disastrous scenarios instead. In particular, as I've written before, I'm interested in how current political and economic systems are ill suited to address these kinds of problems. Though the positive outcome discussed in the article could turn out to be correct and parts of it are already proving so, I have yet to read a thorough examination discussing all of the structural changes that would be necessary for desirable results.

With recent events, the first thing that comes to mind is the rhetoric of Donald Trump, which is about fifty years behind the times. He was elected on the premise that he could bring back 1950's-like American economic conditions by keeping manufacturing jobs within the borders and increasing taxes on imports. I suppose you could give Trump the benefit of the doubt and say that he made these claims only to get elected and will actually do something quite different, but in the interest of caution it is more appropriate to regard him as an ignorant and dangerous opportunist. If he enacted his plan, American products would soon become too expensive for Americans to afford, and American companies would have no foreign markets because their products could be made for less elsewhere. In order to survive, American manufacturing companies would be forced to automate as much as possible, resulting in more layoffs and fewer employees. In the end, the manufacturing workers whom Trump was supposed to be helping would be either unemployed or working for even lower real wages than they had been previously. Regardless of political propaganda, automation is here to stay under any circumstances, and Cixin is probably correct in projecting that we are on the way to having a ninety percent unemployment rate – this is the real issue that requires political resolution.

Another shortcoming of the Trumpian worldview, which I haven't seen discussed, is how it ignores the fact that technology is undermining traditional economic models. Not only will fewer workers be needed, but the conditions necessary for traditional economic competition may gradually evaporate. Most people will be living on fixed incomes and have less money available for the frivolous products that corporations depend on for their revenue. Furthermore, the "added value" that underlies contemporary economic thought may become more elusive as high technology becomes widely available; what was once thought of as business acumen or creative entrepreneurship may soon be something that can be bought off-the-shelf by anyone, effectively turning creativity and "intellectual capital" into commodities. It appears likely that there will be greater and greater competition for fewer and fewer dollars, and when work is no longer necessary, most people will probably opt to skip it entirely given that the work environment will have become too competitive. As Cixin says, people are going to have to get used to a life of leisure whether they like it or not. Trump is completely off the mark, because he is stuck in a time warp in which he thinks of himself and his peers as job creators just as jobs are becoming obsolete.

There are some really vexing problems here that I'm not about to solve with my feeble brain on this blog post, but I can still make an effort. In an earlier scenario I suggested that apps could theoretically reduce the irrationality that thrives in the current electoral system by becoming part of the system and adding rationality to decision-making processes, i.e., telling people how to vote. Because there seems to be a global trend of electing incompetent demagogues, I am beginning to wonder whether a world coup by the tech giants might not be as bad an idea as it sounds. Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Bill Gates are rational people who may be more qualified to transform the world into a safe habitat for seven billion people than the ones who tend to win popular elections. At the moment a benevolent technocratic dictatorship seems more appealing to me than a world run by intellectually deficient buffoons.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Melancholy of Resistance I

I'm gradually getting back to reading and still have a long way to go in this novel by László Krasznahorkai. It is somewhat different from Satantango in that it concerns events in a town rather than in the country, has a broader range of characters and is written in long, flamboyant sentences. It also exhibits more psychological realism by showing how each character thinks, highlighting discontinuities in perspective that very few writers even notice, let alone capture in their work. As in Satantango the narrative is driven by forebodings and signs, always hinting at some mystery yet to be revealed.

My attitude to fiction is quite jaded at this point, and I am inclined not to read it at all, so whenever I do make the effort I can only tolerate works of the highest quality. In this respect Krasznahorkai doesn't disappoint, and I think he must be one of the best novelists ever. To compare him to Alice Munro or Philip Roth or Marilynne Robinson would be a joke. I find him more interesting than Dostoevsky, Proust, Kafka or Joyce. If you take the novel seriously as a form of art, there probably aren't many other living authors worth reading today.

The thought that is preoccupying me at the moment is Krasznahorkai's use of peasant characters, which ties in with some of my lifelong meditations. One of the reasons why I like him is that he doesn't hesitate to reveal weaknesses in peasants, something that not only does not occur in American fiction but is specifically banned in the era of political correctness. Broadly speaking, the concept of a peasant does not exist in American culture, because it has been replaced by the immigrant and melting pot narrative, in which everyone becomes equal. The melting pot narrative has caused cognitive dissonance in me from the moment I set foot here in 1957, because I immediately noticed differences in people through an intuitive understanding of peasant and non-peasant mentalities. As my life unfolded I became more acutely aware that I didn't care in the least whether I made a lot of money or achieved high social status, and that this put me at odds with the dominant currents in American society.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was put off by the Italian immigrants who lived in the town where I grew up. Later, when I lived in Illinois, I noticed that it was hard for me to relate to the second or third generation Polish immigrants whom I ran into at work. In the workforce, the absence of intellectual curiosity in others became a permanent barrier separating me from them. A similar barrier existed between me and my ex-wife's family. Prior to World War II they had been farmers and grain elevator operators in western Ohio, and after the war the men turned to law, geology and business. The women married similarly and never lived on a farm again. In one generation they went from agrarian lives to professional lives, which reflected their drive for financial and social advancement. As with the Italians and the Poles, I found them unimaginative and incapable of engaging in discussion of subjects which were not part of their limited backgrounds. This prompted me to look into my own background in search of something that might help explain the origin of my different perspective.

Part of that difference is simply a matter of life experience. I was born into a middle class family in England, where I lived until the age of 7. From the ages of 7 to 18 I lived in a suburb of New York City. After that I lived for several years in Indiana and Illinois, with short stays in Connecticut, Ohio, Oregon and Kentucky. Although my experience was hardly cosmopolitan, it was certainly broader than that of my in-laws. Another part of the difference, I've decided, is family history. In my family, the agrarian roots are further back than most. In England my ancestors were tailors and furriers by the early nineteenth century, and in Turkey they were engaged in international trade by the early twentieth century. My grandfather was importing pianos to Greece and his sister was studying music in Paris while my ex-wife's illiterate grandfather was in a field plowing behind a horse in Ohio. Thus, even though education did not play much of a role in my family until the late twentieth century, on my mother's side there was significant multiculturalism by 1920, with my grandfather speaking seven languages and my grandmother having German and Armenian parents.

There is a special beauty for me in writers like Krasznahorkai, who aren't afraid to call a peasant a peasant. In his case there isn't necessarily any heroism involved, because the environment in which he writes has different cultural references from those in the U.S. Even so, it is encouraging to me to know that there is a writer of fiction out there who has a brain. That is important to me as a resident of a country that suppresses all derogatory discussion of its peasant constituency and elects crypto-peasants such as George W. Bush and Donald Trump to its highest office.