On Adolescence

A fundamental insight of psychoanalysis is that we never grow out of our childhood. It is not a particularly difficult thought; does anyone remember a clear moment in their lives when they qualitatively stopped being children? When they experienced themselves as somehow distinct from how they experienced themselves as children? When they stopped being tired, hyperactive, confused, excited, desirous, angry, jealous, insecure, and arrogant? The wager of psychoanalysis is that we never grow out of childhood, but only that we come to think that we have. As soon as we’ve done that, we close ourselves off to many possibilities and many of our own wishes. We become efficient but numb, perhaps even unhappy. It is at this point we might undergo therapy – to enter into a conversation with a trained analyst that might allow us to have a more honest and rich conversation with ourselves, our wishes, our pasts and our futures.

What was it like to be a child? What is it like to remain a child into one’s twenties, thirties, and forties? It was and is not to know what it is that we want, never completely knowing what it is we wish for when we wish for something. This is at once a rather convoluted but also a rather simple thought to understand. It is convoluted in that it assumes that we never really know what we want, when we think we want something, what we really want is something else that the first something stands for. It is simple because if one stops and thinks about it, that simply is how one comes to want and then not want things. Why am I in the mood for pizza one night and not another? When did I know that I wanted to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an engineer? Why did I fall in love with this person and not someone else? Why did this relationship stop working? When did I realise I wanted to change careers? Why did I think I was ready to move? Why did I want that at that particular time? As soon as one puts these questions to one’s life, or to anyone else’s life, one finds that the answers sooner or later run out. “Because I just did.”

Psychoanalytic accounts of the mind pay close attention to these moments, the times when all one can say is “I just did that, I can’t quite say why. It was the right thing to do really.” The wager of psychoanalysis is that if one thinks about this moment long enough, and if one continues to describe and redescribe the process in which one came to want something through freely associating all of the thoughts, dreams, and intentions one had in the past – one will understand and be able to give some account of that wish. This account would be retrospective and incomplete by necessity. It would be structured by yet another wish that we are unaware of in the moment of reconstruction, but will come to the surface at a later point in our lives. We are always running behind the bus of our desires. Like bus schedules, our wishes are inexplicable to us. Yet they structure our actions – our actions make our wishes manifest to some extent, and the wishes become somewhat explicable. In their new explicability we find a new excitement and sense of power over ourselves.

“When I was finding myself in friendships with people who cheerfully abused me and took me for granted, I was merely repeating the friendships I had made in high school, and those friendships resembled my relationship with my best friend in primary school who constantly teased me excessively but seemed at the time to be the most dazzling personality I’d ever met… all this time I’ve been looking for his approval and didn’t know it!”

I was doing something knowable this whole time and I didn’t know it. The excitement of psychoanalysis lies in the thought, as Adam Phillips puts it, that we “suffer from a surfeit of meaningful intentions.” There’s so much thought and meaning put into every single one of our actions, our mistakes, our gestures, our laughs, our turn-ons that we can only be aware of a part of it at any point of time.

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Corbyn’s in the Thick of It*

It’s hard to estimate quickly or accurately the impact of a TV series on a political culture. But given how comment is free these days, I’d like to take a moment to argue that “The Thick of It” perhaps laid the cultural ground for a grassroots labour/left movement to take power back from the New Labour idiocrats. In its first run, Iannucci’s series marvelously described the Alastair Campbell method of government to much critical acclaim and, I think, to some popular enthusiasm. After all, it was brought back three more times in the coming years to address the ever-more cynical turns in the Brown years and of course, the Con-Dem coalition. What was the style of government that the series so effectively satirized and thus inadvertently inspired the Corbyn campaign this summer?

The Alastair Campbell recipe for good, “communitarian” government:  try to say and do what you think the press wants you to say or do, and if they disagree, quickly change what it is you said and did and bully, cajole, confuse them into agreeing with you shortly – or at least, not disagreeing. As a politician in The Thick of It (TTOI), and in Blair’s cabinet, you have to be on top of the “narrative” – a chant of ephemeral truisms by the paid commentariat which seems reasonable enough insofar as it generates the impression of a thousand heads nodding at once. Viewers of The Thick of It and attentive followers of British politics soon realise that these heads are all nodding off.

The narrative. As Ian Martin (writer and swearing consultant for the show) argues in his recent op-ed, for Blair’s cabinet, ruling meant hewing as closely to the opinion polls in every policy, using statistically significant focus groups to ensure that any new policy would go “down well”, and fundamentally, saying whatever you need to say to stay in power. Of course all politicians have done this throughout history, Corbyn is doing it now too, insofar as he thinks he knows what to say to get people to vote for him. I don’t think he does, people just want someone, anyone, who isn’t a second-rate telemarketer to be their leader.  What enraged Martin and Iannucci, to the point that they created this masterpiece – was simply how empty, sad, and nihilistically destructive Campbell’s approach was to the British public sphere. Campbell, Blair, and the Fleet Street editors had apparently decided that the big questions in politics were over, history had ended and so had politics – what was left was spectacle: scandal, “effectiveness”, making a statement, looking presidential.

It’s hard to describe Campbell and Blair’s impact on the public debate without going into a vicious fury at the needless damage done, perhaps as Iannucci and Martin did in writing the glorious curses in the show, but one could start by hazarding a contrast with the great British political satire of the 1980s: Yes Minister. The civil servant and the minister in the show share many agreeable conversations over glasses of port in fine mahogany-panelled rooms as they try to negotiate the demands of their party, their consciences, and the rules. The tone is always congenial, and the insights of the civil servant (the unforgettable Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Sir Nigel Hawthorne) approach but never quite reach the quality of universal truths of the human condition. Their conversations and repartee, their failures and successes, describe a polity that is understandable and debatable – a political establishment that knows its faults, preserves them, works around them, and sometimes, despite itself, even addresses them.

TTOI by contrast presents a maelstrom of contradictory orders within 3-member departmental teams, botched press announcements, threats, anger, violence, and shining mediocrity (pl. the Westminster class) that is rather proud of what it is capable of. Their conversations, obsessed with whether a policy follows a party line and whether that party line reflects well on the party in the press, present a political world for which society is unknowable and unchangeable. The best we can do is get the opinion polls and try to announce a brand new policy that makes everyone happy and costs nothing. Most government plans are half-baked and rescinded once the news of their ineptitude has quickly spread – the writers are at pains to make clear that the press, Westminster, and perhaps Whitehall have little understanding of the issues that affect modern Britain, the days of the wise and wry Sir Humphrey Appleby are, alas, long gone.

It has been about ten years since the first season of TTOI. If at least some of the Corbyn-maniacs haven’t seen the show and been convinced of the need for a revolution in how Britain does politics then I, like Alastair Campbell before me, will eat my kilt. For instance, many on social media quickly leapt upon Ed Miliband’s sagacious move to set his promises in stone thus giving the world a half-memorable tombstone for a rather forgettable candidacy, as an incident straight out of TTOI: hopeless leader, ravenous press and all. News this week that the Department of Work and Pensions fabricated success stories in its leaflet on sanctions for benefit claimants could very well be a plot point from Iannucci’s show too. What Iannucci and his team of writers intuitively understood, and what the reasonable center of Labour don’t understand right now, is that this kind of petulant, showy disregard for the concerns of the people and for the patent truth is unsustainable. I think The Thick of It made the argument that this method of government – and this kind of journalism – is not only unsustainable, but fundamentally illegitimate. As it permeated the public consciousness through the notorious “left-wing” BBC – whose political creativity is bound to be circumscribed by future governments – the media and political class laughed uproariously at themselves (much as they have laughed at Corbyn’s leadership bid all summer), not realising that they too might soon find themselves in, well, the thick of it.

*This post was an attempt at a kind of humour. Its serious point, whatever it was – was developed, or perhaps repeated, from this insightful post by Timothy Burke on Sanders,Trump, and Corbyn.

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Syriza and the Burial of Hector

Homer’s Iliad concludes with a singularly affecting scene of reconciliation. Priam, king of defeated Troy and father to dead Hector, makes his way to the enemy camp and surprises all-powerful Achilles by falling to his knees and kissing the hands “that were dangerous and manslaughtering and had killed so many of his sons.” (XXIV. 478-480). No one can quite believe it.

“As when dense disaster closes on one who has murdered

a man in his own land, and he comes to the country of others,

to a man of substance, and wonder seizes upon those who behold him,

so Achilles wondered as he looked on Priam, a godlike

man, and the rest of them wondered also, and looked at each other.” (XXIV. 480-484).

The Trojans and the Greeks have fought a cataclysmic war – one which promises to be remembered for thousands of years. Out of anguish at the loss of his beloved Patroclus, Achilles has killed the best Trojan warriors, among them their champion, Priam’s son – a favourite of Zeus – Hector. Still unable to come to terms with his loss and unable to sleep:

“in longing for Patroclus, for his manhood and his great strength

and all the actions he had seen to the end with him, and the hardships

he had suffered; the wars of men; hard crossing of the big waters…”

Achilles, crying, further desecrates Hector’s corpse, to punish the already dead murderer of Patroclus: dragging it around his campsite in a chariot. It is unclear what Achilles is thinking as he does this, it seems a mindless act of grief. Homer describes it as a “standing fury” (XXIV. 23).

Priam has lost his dearest son and his city is destroyed: his “wish is to go sooner down to the house of the death god.” (XXIV.246). Achilles too has lost everything in Patroclus. He is in a state of blind fury, capable of anything, all-powerful in the narrative. Imagine how much you have to have lost to be ready to supplicate the murderer of your son. Not just any murderer but Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks.

Narrating this scene, Homer adds wonder upon wonder. Everyone looks at each other in shock at the sight of the aged Priam on his knees like a servant to Achilles. Once Priam finishes his opening speech, Achilles breaks into tears and weeps “for his father, now again for Patroclus” (XXIV.510-511). They cry so loudly that “the sound of their mourning” moves through the house (XXIV.512). Achilles calls on Patroclus to forgive him for returning Hector and thus pardoning him in some way. Priam and Achilles are holding hands and crying out loudly for their dead comrades. A deep sympathy holds them close and they tenderly care for each other. Achilles reminds Priam to eat, and the two great warriors dine together after having earlier lost a taste for food in their grief. As they finish, they continue to look at each other in silence, admiring each other’s bravery, listening to one another’s words (XXIV.632-4).

Priam knows well – as Hector mentions in book VI to his wife and child – that the Trojans will soon be taken captive and the city itself will be lost, doomed to be remembered solely in the form of verse. But of Achilles, the greatest of these victorious Greeks, he gently asks for a bed to get some rest (XXIV. 637-8). Achilles, in turn, promises Priam that he will hold back his people for as many days as is necessary for an honourable burial of Hector (XXIV. 657-658). Another moment of wonder for the listener. A truce that is offered by the one who insulted Hector’s corpse to honour the very same man himself? An enemy king being offered a bed to sleep in and guaranteed safety in a hostile camp?

It is striking that the one of the greatest war epics ends with the funeral of the slain antagonist. It is even more striking that the funeral is made possible by a touching and extraordinary, indeed divine, reconciliation between the victors and the vanquished – between the all-powerful and the powerless, between Achilles and Priam. Achilles needed to grieve with Priam so that he could mourn appropriately his own loss. Seeing Priam’s grief for Hector mirrored in his own grief for Patroclus made him recognise the importance of a fair burial for his enemy. He came to see the importance of letting something go so that he and his enemy’s family can continue to live. The wrath which is sung in the opening lines is finally laid to rest in Achilles’ relinquishing of Hector’s corpse. It is only in mourning with a wise and powerless king who similarly is distraught at losing his loved-one that Achilles’ wrath subsides and he is able to rest once more. Taking Priam’s wrist to give him comfort, reminds Achilles of the comfort of loving again. Shortly after doing so, he goes to bed, Briseis at his side (XXIV. 671-676).

Why did Homer end his magnificent epic with such a remarkable scene of reconciliation? When Troy is about to be smashed apart, why did Homer give such a voice, and such indispensability to Priam – as the singular mediator, the only possible event, that could give Achilles succour from his grief? I can’t possibly do these questions justice in a brief post, but I think he caught onto something it is well worth keeping in mind as we consider the happenings in the EU today. Concluding the Iliad this way, Homer reminds us that power exercised in pure vengeance, without regard for the humanity of the antagonist is worthless, shameful. Just because the Trojans were defeated and Priam was unarmed does not mean that he deserves to be killed on sight. Achilles treats him with the respect he would give his own father: he relents on his unreasonable demand to continue to desecrate this enemy corpse, he offers him shelter, offers him terms which allow a glorious burial for his loved-one’s murderer, takes the hand of Priam. Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks, acts not to eliminate the possibility of Trojan dissent once and for all in killing Priam there and then – but treats him nobly, as family.

If I have any advice that might be worth heeding by the Eurogroup’s democratically elected leaders and their electorates, it is this. Read book XXIV of the Iliad. Please understand that punitive power will do no good, and that the humanity of your putative antagonist is well worth respecting at whatever trivial costs or adjustments that you will have to make. See Tsipras with the affection and sympathy that Achilles grants Priam. It sounds unreasonable and impossible. How hard do you think it would have been for Achilles at the height of his grief to see the father of his loved-one’s killer?

Priam, king of a soon-to-be-devastated land, only asks for dignity and some say in how the devastation shall proceed. Since 2010, the austerity imposed on Greece – and not just Greece, but also the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Latvia, many of the EU member states – has been the equivalent of dragging a corpse around by a chariot to satisfy an overpowering grudge. I understand that many are uncomfortable with the war metaphors used by Syriza and other commentators. I use them because like wars, they describe unnecessary collective suffering and death imposed by the good will and intentions of the few.

Austerity has failed comprehensively. This is easy to see in Greece where a quarter of the people are unemployed. Government cuts on all public healthcare have led to a resurgence in malaria. Greece has lost 25% of its GDP under the governance of the Troika. Writing in The Nation, Sarah Leonard reports the following:

 “A third live below the poverty line; 300,000 are without electricity. About 800,000 people lack health coverage. Infant mortality shot up 43 percent between 2008 and 2011.”

On the Troika’s own terms, with its plan to reduce Greece’s debt, “the debt-to-GDP ratio has increased from 115% to 165%”.

Unlike Achilles, who understood that he needed to relent in his punishment of Hector’s corpse, the Troika refuse to take responsibility. As Waldman notes:

“When the levee broke, instead of acknowledging errors and working to address them as a community, Europe’s elites — its politicians and civil servants, its bankers and financiers — deflected the blame in the worst possible way. They turned a systemic problem of financial architecture into a dispute between European nations.”

The Troika has made no plausible economic argument for the conditions that they seek to impose on Greece. Commenting on the variety of economists from different schools who have thoughtfully criticised the Troika’s policies, Munchau in today’s FT notes that: “there is no reputable economic theory according to which an economy which has experienced an eight-year-long depression requires a new round of austerity to bring about adjustment”. To turn to another moderate Greek political economist, Aristotle, this lack of plausible argument fails the necessary conditions of a human community.

“Speech is for making clear what is beneficial or harmful, and hence also what is just or unjust. For it is peculiar to human beings, in comparison to other animals, that they alone have perception of what is good or bad, just or unjust, and the rest. And it is community in these that makes a household and a city-state.” (Politics I. 2. 1253a15-18).

The European leadership more generally, the heads of states and their respective political parties, have imposed a rather foolish austerity on their own electorates, and the possibility of a better deal going to one of their fellow peoples (the Greeks) has caused a kind of resentment against Syriza which is quite out of proportion to the situation (suggested to me here: ). This is a systemic problem and will require a fundamental change in economic policy not just for the Greeks, but for all of Europe.

The Greek vote for OXI (No) today has not been for an exit from the European community, much less the European Monetary Union. It has been a rejection of a failed and largely incoherent economic agenda. The Greeks have bravely demanded that Europe can collectively work out a settlement that can simply ensure some kind of sustainable economic growth across the board. Syriza is a coalition composed largely of former Communists and other radical-leftist groups in Greece, but its demands are quite capitalist, and in that sense, quite conservative. It does not want to leave the Euro; it merely wants an economic plan which stimulates economic growth rather than needlessly depress it. If you listen closely to Varoufakis’ last interview before his resignation this morning, you will note that he only seeks proposals that are viable, not redistributive. No rational business can invest in Greece if the threat of default hangs in the near-term future. Tsipras’ insistence and promise of a new deal within 48 hours, a time period that has already begun, signals his willingness to “save capitalism from itself” (as Varoufakis put it in a famous talk).

The clock is ticking. The intellectual bankruptcy of the EU leadership’s economic argument is evident to everyone but themselves. Aware of its weak bargaining position, Syriza has repeatedly proven itself willing to make significant concessions to ensure some kind of moderate-Keynesian deal. A lack of prudence and statesmanship, a lack of awareness of the nobility that must be exercised by the powerful has prevented the Troika from acting justly and also successfully, handing Syriza easy ideological and moral victories in its cartoonish intransigence.

Socrates’ wager in the Republic was that:

“no one in any position of rule, to the extent that he is a ruler, considers or enjoins what is advantageous to himself, but what is advantageous for his subject- that on which he practices his craft….” (Rep. I. 342e6-10).

It is for the enterprising reader of the Republic to determine whether he succeeded. Inasmuch as he wished for the city that he made in speech to be taken as a model for anyone “who wishes to look at it and to found himself on the basis of what he sees…” (Rep. IX.582b2-5), perhaps the current crop of politicians can find a rather old model. May they learn from the Greeks the necessity of collective deliberation for successful democratic politics, the respect and dignity accorded to one’s antagonist which makes one whole, the prudence and intelligence to be a statesman who delivers prosperity on the basis of truth rather than a demagogue and rhetorician who offers flickering shadows in a cave.

Postscript: This was written on July 5, in the heat of the moment shortly after the referendum. A week is a long time in politics and if the leaked document linked here is correct, and if I am understanding it correctly (both rather extravagant premisses that the charitable reader must grant) it appears that Syriza’s proposal to the Eurogroup is a rather comprehensive capitulation to the demands of Ordoliberal austerity: privatisation, breaking trade unions, and cutting already meager pensions. This is not what the Greeks voted for. Unlike Priam of Troy, perhaps they had not realised that they were defeated. Tsipras will bring about an honourable burial just yet, and Merkel herself might allow him to do so with a generous “humanitarian aid” package. An Iliadic ending would be just this: a funeral.

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Interview with a King

ZauI reviewed George Osodi’s photo series Royals and Regalia, on display at the Newark Museum through August 9, 2015. The exhibit explores the role and function of Nigeria’s ceremonial rulers in the colorful yet fractious nation:

Photojournalists in the American tradition, from Jakob Riis to Dorothea Lange, often depict their subjects with a gritty realism. Osodi turns this accepted formula on its head…Nigeria’s radiant monarchs are shown in their most colorful finery through the eyes of their subjects as they would like to be seen. And what we gain from it is a sense of Nigeria’s place in the world, a window into centuries of history that engages us in the present, and an eagerness to transform borrowed items from the past to make peace in the present day.

I even interview a king, the Nigerian Dein of Agbor Benjamin Ikenchuku Keaboreku I! Read the whole thing at The American Interest.


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Tod und Verklärung: The Aeolus Quartet Plays New York

Alice Tully Hall; Monday, May 4, 2015

BOYCE Alcyone (World Premiere)

SCHOENBERG Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) for String Sextet

SCHUBERT String Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden”

We purchase and consume our music in the smallest of units, the “song.” What does it mean, then, to develop four of these “songs” together, or even to develop an entire concert built around the same theme?

The Aeolus Quartet presented three programmatic works this month under the theme of “Death and Transfiguration.” While the title itself (an homage to Richard Strauss) was perhaps a bit of a cliché, the three works together formed a well-balanced program; each of the three works had a strict (or loose) association with transformation.

The first piece retold the Greek myth of Alcyone, a commission by Douglas BoyceAlcyone‘s timbral effects captured the scratching and the swooping of the birds and the waves, a piece that was in constant motion from beginning to end.

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What Happened to the Postwar Dream?

This past UK general election result should not have been surprising. Yet it was. We shall discuss why this was the case but let’s dwell on the title of this essay. I think it’s significant that the Conservatives won on the same weekend as V-E Day, the day that Europe celebrates victory over Nazi Germany – the end of World War II in Europe. The complete victory of the Conservatives in the United Kingdom parliament marks the denouement of a long moment in European history that began in 1945; a moment that began with the exceptional Labour victory that year and the systematic pursuit of a collective dream of social democracy. This dream consisted of full employment, free education, universal healthcare, and a party-political movement that aimed to represent the interests of the most vulnerable – the working class. This dream became a nightmare to Thatcher in the 1980s, a neurotic symptom that Blair could never quite work out in the early 2000s, and an irrelevant fantasy to David Cameron today. With his election victory last week, and with the decimation of British social democracy that both preceded his rule and will only continue more rapidly now – we have to reckon with the fact that the moment of this dream has passed. We have put 1945 behind us. The threat of world communism no longer forces us to imagine publics larger than marginal constituencies. The shared horror and triumph of collective participation in war is behind us. The memory of how radical solidarity in the face of global disaster can, in fact, defeat completely the worst manifestations of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and global capital is long distant, and perhaps no longer a relevant fact to our contemporary experience. Though I, and the honourable musicians of Pink Floyd, would argue that it should be.

Social democracy does not just describe a government providing generous welfare to its citizens, though that is an important feature. It is not simply about a government attempting to achieve full employment through the right monetary policies, though that matters. It is also not all about a strong trade union movement that can allow the most vulnerable workers to stand together and survive against large capital-owners, though that is absolutely essential. A key characteristic of a healthy social democracy is a public sphere that can include within it as expansive and as comprehensive range of voices and perspectives as possible. This does not mean variety for variety’s sake; we can probably find a hundred different contrarian conservative perspectives in Wimbledon, people who take visible joy in their risible opinions – “I’m a Tory because Ed Miliband can’t eat a bacon sandwich, you need leadership qualities to be a Prime Minister for god’s sake!; I’m a Tory because Labour wouldn’t keep the country safe from the Scots; I’m a Tory because Labour would tank the economy; I’m a Tory because radical Islamists have really gone too far in this country”. Of course this doesn’t mean that Tories should be excluded from a social democratic public sphere. A great tragedy is that we don’t get to hear them. They seem to be shy. Why is that?

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Plucking the Goose

Birds of a feather flock together at Louis XIV's Menagerie. Courtesy of www.nicolaslefloch.fr

Birds of a feather flock together at Louis XIV’s Menagerie. Courtesy of http://www.nicolaslefloch.fr

French Economic Minister Emmanuel Macron declared himself the standard bearer of a “new French capitalism” in today’s Wall Street Journal. (An earlier French version appeared on April 24 in Le Monde, with choice commentary by Arthur Goldhammer). This isn’t just another installment of Emmanuel’s neoliberal loi Macron. Macron’s declaration seems to argue for an increase in state control—but through the very language of entrepreneurship and the free market that he would like to control. Macron begins:

…this old brand of state capitalism is no longer adapted to today’s world economy. In fact, our economic system is adapting to an economy that is far more decentralized, more international in nature and more subject to disruptions by a small group of geeks working from a basement.

At least the French version contented itself with le startup without having to resort to les geeks! Macron continues:

These changes have favored short-term investors and limited the ability of long-term strategic actors to provide both capital and strategic guidance…there is a real need to invent a new, long-term capitalism in which the state has a role to play to accompany companies in their transformation and their investment plans.

This second paragraph describes a form of state capitalism unflinchingly similar to the “old brand” that Macron had just derided in the first paragraph as obsolete. Continue reading

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