Lives of Infamous Men

In his essay, “Lives of Infamous Men,” Foucault states a list of rules he has chosen for the selection of material for a broader project.

• The persons included must have actually existed.

• These existences must have been both obscure and ill-fated.

• They must have been recounted in a few pages or, better, a few sentences, as brief as possible.

• These tales must not just constitute strange or pathetic anecdotes; but, in one way or another (because they were complaints, denunciations, orders, or reports), they must have truly formed part of the minuscule history of these existences, of their misfortune, their wildness, or their dubious madness.

• And for us still, the shock of these words must give rise to a certain effect of beauty mixed with dread. (#, 159)

Foucault tells us that the purpose of these seemingly arbitrary criteria was to unearth “the existence of these men and women” of whom “nothing subsists of what they were or what they did, other than what is found in a few sentences” and present these scraps of official discourse, because what was written “really crossed lives; existences were actually risked and lost in these words”  (162, 160). Foucault gives an example of one such scrap, whose kindred surprised and enraptured him with their intensity:

Mathurin Milan, placed in the hospital of Charenton, 31 August 170 7: “His madness was always to hide from his family, to lead an obscure life in the country, to have actions at law, to lend usuriously and without security, to lead his feeble mind down unknown paths, and to believe himself capable of the greatest employments.” (158)

In my own research, I come across such lives from time to time, which effloresce briefly in the account books of a plantation, an ancient diary, or some long forgotten agricultural journals. So when there is occasion, I will try to re-present the lives of these infamous men and women I stumble across, with as little adornment as possible. Such representations have a politics, to be sure, yet these documents endure in any case, and we tend to believe that knowledge is made for cutting.

No Virtual Space

No Virtual Space—All things actually exist. A blog is not a virtual space for thoughts; it exists, and relies on a certain number of material supports. They can be counted. Whether inscribed on the synapses of the brain, the variable electrical intensities on a screen, or fluctuations on ferromagnetic material, they remain in “real” space. Forgotten, this state of affairs makes thought vulnerable to the appropriation of its material substrate, over which others will have, in the mean time, seized control.

(see: Wikileaks alternate sites.)

A labyrinth into which I can venture…

*note: this is a post migrated from my old wordpress blog, over to tumblr, and now, once again, back to wordpress … you can find the new blog right here, where it’s been for awhile…

This space is designed to be what the ancient Greeks called hupomnēmata, an aid to memory, a digital notebook. Foucault says that the simple notebook, just coming into vogue in Plato’s time, “was as disrupting as the introduction of the computer into private life today” (#). Writing is part of the structure of thinking. And, given that my chosen profession is centered around research, writing, and instructing others in the fruits of that labor, I feel as much obliged as anything else to keep a public weblog of all these activities.

So much of the things that we think which are good don’t fit the purely professional forums of conferences and scholarly journals, and even when they do they oftend to isolate themselves off from our everyday lives. A blog seems like a pretty good solution, a sort of informal publication. I am personally currently writing my dissertation in the University at Buffalo’s English Department, so the following is the likely schema of meditations that will get posted here:

  • Synopses of current dissertation research
  • Some of my less ephemeral thoughts*
  • Lives of infamous men that crop up in my historical research (#)
  • Aphorisms
  • Conferences and other academic endeavors
  • Links to interesting things, such as articles

I hope that this space will continue long enough that these will mutate and change over time, inscribing some sort of evolution over time. And maybe, just maybe,  it is to be hoped that these hupomnēmata “may be of use to others” as well as our self (#).

—Addendum 4/27/20: It has indeed continued long enough that all of these have mutate and changed over time, radically, into many shapes, even as the glimmer of this early efflorescence of social media has really begun to lose much of its shine. Nevertheless, it marks off an intention at the origin of a project that guides it in the breach, even if the walls are mostly breaches these days …

Et in Hades Ego


Don’t believe The Road is great because of its meditations on the human condition. It ain’t. The Road is an adventure book. … McCarthy spares the ponderous “wisdom” that can sometimes make his work a slog.
Victor LaValle (#3, “The 20 Best Books of the Decade,” Paste Magazine)

Well, the movie marketing execs have definitely taken this view. See: the trailer. I hope the director didn’t.

This is twice in a week that I’ve encountered a similar snide aside from a movie/book review concerning McCarthy. From an old Texas Monthly movie review of No Country for Old Men:

But the directors have also imbued the film with their own trademark sensibility, a dry comic bite that neatly tempers McCarthy’s more pretentious flights of literary fancy. The result is a feat of alchemy: a film that somehow feels truer to the spirit of McCarthy than McCarthy’s novel, and one that brings the Coens ingeniously full circle. (#)

This sort of thing makes me feel that “Philistine” should remain a valid epithet. “Pretentious” means “Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed; making an exaggerated outward display; ostentatious, showy” (OED). McCarthy’s fiction pretends to nothing. And please, for all that is holy, please, please let there be more ponderous wisdom and literary flights of fancy such as these.

Because the former reviewer is 100% incorrect, The Road is not an adventure story. If John Grisham rewrote it, it would be five and a half pages long, maybe six. And, especially when you consider that it is science fiction (a similar science fiction review derided it as derivative and unoriginal with reference to apocalyptic imaginings), you realize that it’s nothing drastically original in terms of either plot or circumstance (Octavia Butler’s work, in particular, has a similarly dark view of human nature and the fragility of civilization).

Because The Road is not an adventure story, it is poetry. The language is haunting and sparse. Nothing happens. It feels like the end of the world. In Mad Max and every other apocalyptic action movie, we get the perverse thrill of destruction or the fine ride through a world which, though barbarous, is also adventurous again. There is nothing like that in The Road. All one can feel, in the end, is hopelessness, the hopelessness of all things ruined. As The Judge remarks in Blood Meridian:

This you see here, these ruins … do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again.

Except this time, we are not in the mythical Eden of the West, but in a hopeless, grey hell.

Et in Arcadia Ego; or, On Reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

… or The Evening Redness in the West

And the answer, said the judge. If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? … His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes.

Paradoxically enough, a book like this renews my faith in the possibilities of the world, that there is such a thing to encounter out there as this–that it was even sitting tucked away on my very own bookshelf, waiting, a potentiality waiting to be actualized. I don’t know what rough thing such a book lets loose in the world, something terrible and awesome, in the rooted meaning of those words. It certainly makes the whole mythos of the West tremble and come unmoored, in the looseness of which new histories of life and America become possible.

The judge smiled. Whether in my book or not, every man is tabernacled in every other and he in exchange and so on in an endless complexity of being and witness to the uttermost edge of the world. 

It is interesting, too, at the height of the arms race, in 1985, McCarthy writes a book prohphetic of an already apocalyptic human soul, but in 2006, when violence has come to seem more local and endemic, if no less brutal, McCarthy writes a book about the apocalypse of the world. Like all good authors, his mirrors are slightly awry, and we see our own images askew in history and place–as if the end of history, in ashes, was really about the ultimate destiny of the human soul, what makes it human beyond violence, in violence, enduring, but mayhap not forever.

This you see here, these ruins … do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again.

One wonders if Judge Holden, survives into the desolation after this possibly final war, and if in it he simply see the echoes of other desolations past, dim rumors of the deserts of Texas, Mexico, California, the sutured frontier opened again where some wild chaos spills out to confront the too-easy, too-fragile truth of the present…

Or is the truth of his immortality what he represents from the essence of the human, its mindless, eternal violence.

He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

Ian Hacking’s critique of the Theory-of-Mind-deficit theory of autism « What Sorts of People

Apropos fiatluxemburg on reverse gestalt psychology.  Made me think…

Our culture almost always envisions AI emerging from an enunciative function, of learning to become self-aware (think, I, Robot or, inversely, Babel-17).

But, what if AI is much more likely to first become … complex, let us say … not based on the level of the symbolic (abstract and abstracted self-conception, language), but on the level of the imaginary (like birds reacting to breast plumage, or dogs reacting to smells or facial recognition), i.e., something automatic and environmental.

Avatars who can recognize anger and run, or happiness and approach. Then, for some crazy reason, like broken machines being used for something, by something, not in their programming, they learn to say “I” …

Ian Hacking’s critique of the Theory-of-Mind-deficit theory of autism « What Sorts of People

Birthers, Race, and Reciprocal Imaginative Interiority

The suits share a vague, underlying notion that Obama must be some sort of foreigner, probably Kenyan, Indonesian or British, though none have any evidence or a coherent narrative to support the claim. … David Emery, an expert on urban legends who writes for, said the citizenship rumor has been fueled by an unusually “deep well of revulsion toward Barack Obama himself, and rage.” (#)

But really, this isn’t really as complicated as all this. It’s Racism 101. Thus, Thomas Jefferson:

The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? (#)

Part of being social animals is the constant and ubiquitous imagining of the interior life of fellow beings. We not only do it with people, but with dogs, cats, walruses, stuffed animals, dolls … as children, we even invent whole pantheons of quasi-real beings to engage with in this incessant patter of imagination.

Jefferson, with all his demons, is proposing, in a negative manner, a theory of sentimental reciprocity that defines one of the bases of sociality–by calling into question the ability to properly imagine the interiority of black folk. This was, precisely, McCain’s strategy at the end of the campaign, with his “Who is the real Barack Obama?” and whatever it was that Palin person said.

And the void produced within the imagination, this blank space is filled with all the paranoid mumblings a culture can produce. Evil plots (9/11 Truth), secret murders (Clinton), the Illuminati and Aliens, all these become explanatory principles that fill-in in this connection’s wake, because if you don’t believe in the connection, then by definition the event of this person symbolically representing you is, symbolically at least, apocalyptic:

Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. (#)

You are not enough people…

When a couple has an argument nowadays, they may think it’s about money or power or sex or how to raise the kids or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though without realizing it, is this: “You are not enough people!”

A husband, a wife and some kids is not a family. It’s a terribly vulnerable survival unit.

I met a man in Nigeria one time, an Ibo who had six hundred relatives he knew quite well. His wife had just had a baby, the best possible news in any extended family.

They were going to take it to meet all its relatives, Ibos of all ages and sizes and shapes. It would even meet other babies, cousins not much older than it was. Everybody who was big enough and steady enough was going to get to hold it, cuddle it, gurgle to it, and say how pretty or how handsome it was.

Wouldn’t you have loved to be that baby?

I sure wish I could wave a wand, and give every one of you an extended family, make you an Ibo or a Navaho—or a Kennedy.

Someone read this passage from Vonnegut to me a while back. Today, it made me think of something my dad said once (actually, it made me think about television, but more on that in a second).

When a child in either the fifties or early sixties, my father moved, and this gave him an interesting perpsective on social atomization a la suburbia. They moved from a poorer, more working class neighborhood to a more affluent one, so if you ask him today, he can tell you with relative certainty that affluent, suburban atomization has one cause: air conditioning.

See, you couldn’t keep all your windows closed in the summer time without air conditioning, you couldn’t even really stay in the house all of the time. So people would talk from house to house (the houses were closer together, too, of course) to their neighbors, or out on the porch, or underneath a tree, etc.

When he moved to the more affluent neighborhood, where the houses had conditioned air, it was like night and day. Totally different social structure to the community. Which bring’s me back to television (which I was thinking of in a fair amount of depth because hours of infomercials on public television is a violation of the commons and the public mission of television, but I digress).

Maybe television has become regnant not because it was a superior communication technology, but because it fit so well with the advent of a new kind of community (or maybe just because of the invention of air conditioning). Suburbia is lonely; televisions fill homes with more voices, more personalities, more plot lines and intrigue, more of that substance that we need to construct our lives. How many voices does one need, before one can dwell some where, before a space can become a home?

Thus, suburbia needs television, a sort of technological collusion that has artificially sustained an untenable form of life, sprawling coccoons of pure boredom. Television lessens the median quotient of loneliness just enough to keep it from all falling apart.

You are not enough people, indeed.

There is one more ugly, more wicked, more filthy!
Although he makes neither great gestures nor great cries,
He would willingly make of the earth a shambles
And, in a yawn, swallow the world;

He is Ennui! — His eye watery as though with tears,
He dreams of scaffolds as he smokes his hookah pipe.
You know him reader, that refined monster,
— Hypocritish reader, — my fellow, — my brother!


On Unacceptable Statements

The Form of Democracy vs. Its Content; or Just War vs. al-Zaydi’s Shoes:

But despite her unhappiness, the first lady saw an upside to the Dec. 14 event. “As bad as the incident is, in my view, it is a sign that Iraqis feel a lot more free to express themselves,” she said.

“I know that if Saddam Hussein had been there the man wouldn’t have been released, and probably would’ve been executed,” she said of the Iraqi journalist, who was arrested following the Dec. 14 incident and has been in custody since. (#)

The facts of the event are so jarring when compared to the slick dismissals of a government that wages just wars in the name of freedom:

Munathir al-Zaydi’s brother Uday met with him in prison on Sunday, and relayed to the press his brother’s account of the torture and attempted extraction of a confession from him, following the shoe-throwing incident on Thursday.

The purpose of the torture was to extract a videotaped confession from him to the effect some political group or militia was behind this, attempting in other words to somehow generate sectarian hatred as a result of this. This was not successful, and al-Zaydi, through his brother, repeated that his act was on behalf of all Iraqis. Maliki himself, pushing ahead with the sectarian story, issued a statement to the effect some killer of Iraqis was behind this, and anyone supporting al-Zaydi is an opponent of “the political process in Iraq”.

Al-Zaydi told his brother he was kicked and punched in the hall where the incident took place, including by Maliki’s guards and by a Kurdish journalist who joined in, then the beating continued in an ante-room, before he was taken to an unused building elsewhere in the Green Zone, where the torture included: Kicking and punching; beating all over the body with chains; cigarettes extinguisned behind his ears; stripped of his clothes and doused in cold water; subjected to electric shocks. The torture lasted for 30 hours. Uday said he say the evidence of that in the form of bruises, swellings and cuts all over his brother’s body. (#)

Laura Bush’s argument, which is essentially the same as the administration’s as a whole, is simply a new deployment of the same political statement invoked against war protesters and other agents of dissent for decades: “Yes, but you can only protest this thing because we provide you your freedom.”

Anytime the form of democracy is invoked against its content, the people invoking it already declare themselves beholden to no one. Wherever this statement can be easily uttered–that is, wherever it remains natural–is one where a corruption is at work in the consitution of a democratic polity. To allow those that utter it to continue to rule–and this is a sure sign that they believe that ruling, as opposed to governing, is what they are doing–is to live not in a state of exception, but to accept such a state itself.

William Connolly has already wrote that the sounds of al-Zaydi’s beating could be heard emanating from the room adjacent to the press conference. Given such a context, it’s only a further indication of such a desire to be ruled that journalists (and, just to be clear, I’m pretty sure journalists give us what we want, for the most part) so readily allow the statement to be repeated unchallenged, accepting Bush’s deployment of the form of democracy against its content (also see the press conference with Dana Perino in the aftermath of the incident).

So, what if Saddam Hussein had been there? What would he have done? Dragged the man out of the room and tortured him to extract a confession? Form vs. content…