Translation as Exploration of Language

The other day my friend Mel Chin asked me: how do you say ‘Black Lives Matter” in Chinese? It was late, I had had a drink, and just did what comes naturally to me: I consulted my inner sense of the Chinese language, and wrote him back:


see as important / black people’s / lives

which you could abbreviate, and still have it be recognizable, as 重黑命 (~BLM). I thought to myself that it wasn’t a translation that would automatically make sense to any Chinese speaker, since the primary meaning of hei/黑/black in political discourse is “dark, suspicious, corrupt”; but Chinese-speakers in the U.S. who saw that formula, on a T-shirt for example, would quickly understand what it was meant to say. 黑命 might, in some possible world, mean “ill-gotten lives,” but what would that be? 黑金, however, “black cash,” is instantly recognizable as a big political problem: payoffs, kickbacks, graft, the usual stuff. Giving a positive sense to “Black” in Chinese will take some work. There aren’t all that many people of African descent in the Chinese-speaking world, so getting people to notice the meaning of blackness in the U.S. sense is still a work in progress there. I liked that my Chinese version came out as an imperative: that seemed to me an integral part of the “matter” in the English, as when we say that something “matters” we are saying “this must matter, you must take it as something that matters.”

When I woke up the next day I realized that I had been over-hasty. In doing literary translation I can just consult my inner sense of the language and if necessary ask others what they think, but something like a political slogan depends very much on what people out there are saying and how they fill in the implicit blanks. So I went to some Chinese newspapers (I’m sorry to admit this, but if it’s about Chinese I am a lot more likely to be reading stories of shape-shifting monks from the Taiping yulan than the daily news), noticed that reporters were discussing 黑命貴 (hei ming gui, or “Black Lives Are Precious”), copied, pasted, and sent. I also liked the echo of the name of a certain guy who liked to bullfight, drink rum, and write about his adventures — a not totally inappropriate connotation for those brave enough to march against heavily-armed police, as was happening just then in my neighborhood.

So I’d replaced my inner Sprachgefühl with the vox pop., or so I thought, until I asked a few friends and learned that the way the slogan has been spun in certain Chinese media is repellent to my understanding of the movement. “Hei ming gui,” while unobjectionable on its face, has the effect of trivializing the claim. “Gui,” of course, also connotes expensive (like handbags and stuff). Worse yet, the slogan is spun as meaning that non-black lives are not precious, which is exactly the way the folks nostalgic for problem-free white supremacy take it: if one group’s lives are valued, so goes their attitude, then another group’s lives are devalued.

That was definitely not the point Mel was trying to make in circulating a Chinese version of the slogan. So back to consulting a range of better-informed friends. The translations they suggested (some their own, some repeated from others) had a range of tone and implication as well. 黑命攸關 (hei ming you guan) was one: “It’s a matter of black lives.” Or: “It comes down to black lives.” But this you guan is just a touch literary, less so than the homophonous 黑命有關 (“it’s about black lives”). Either way leaves the relation between “black” and “lifespan” (ming meaning the duration of a life as opposed to sheng, which connotes the life force) unclear, something the reader has to work out; and wherever there is such suspense, there’s a possibility of misunderstanding, which I didn’t want. The suggestion that one friend made, 黑人的命也是命 (heiren de ming ye shi ming, “black people’s lives are lives too”), guards against the accusation of “privileging” one group’s suffering, but has the disadvantage of being a bit long for T-shirts, bumper-stickers, or marching shouts.

In the end, Mel went with the alternative that combined recognizability with brevity, as best suits the medium.

What this shows about translation is stuff I always-already knew, but didn’t have in mind: that when you frame your thoughts in any language you are addressing somebody who has their own ideas about what you are likely to say, and you may need to guard against a pre-existing meaning or challenge a stereotype in order to get said what you need said. A relational model of meaning, as we say in the trade, means that you’re always answering a question you didn’t expect.


Cultural Appropriation, Sometimes Known as Empathy

Eh bien, regardez-moi ça:

Yes, of course there’s cultural appropriation going on. (And his pink jacket looks silly.) But Claude Nougaro isn’t pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. “Je suis blanc de peau,” he confesses (“I have a white skin”). That doesn’t stop him from putting new French words on the melody of the classic spiritual “Go Down Moses,” with its refrain, “Let my people go,” long since made recognizable to practically everybody in Europe through the mighty singing of Paul Robeson. Is this okay?

The idea that enslaved people in the Southern U.S. could quote the Moses represented in their King James Bibles (Exodus 9:1) as analogizing their situation– well, that too was a cultural appropriation.

Most of the good things in any culture are appropriated, more or less creatively repurposed. Sometimes it’s the powerless taking hold of the culture of the powerful; sometimes it’s the other way around; it’s not always good in the one situation and bad in the other. You just have to hang around and wait to see what happens.

Identity is a deliberate simplification (a simplifiction, if I may sin against the dictionary) of things that are terribly, intriguingly, complicated. And so be it.


Granted That

I hear that activists pulled down the statue of U. S. Grant in a San Francisco park because they found him insufficiently decisive in condemning slavery. Well, very few have done the unglamorous work of eradicating slavery to the degree that Grant did. If we can offer public recognition only to perfect people, then recognition will go to nobody– or only to the loudest liars out there, who of course love to praise themselves (and their phone calls) as “perfect.” The logic of moral absolutism plays into the hands of amoral opportunism. That’s why complexity is preferable to clarity when we are dealing with the past. When dealing with the future, by all means seek that clarity. But try to live up to it yourself rather than denouncing others.

This situation actually just gives me the hook to tell my favorite Lincoln story. Somebody from the War Department came in with the important information that General Grant drank. Shouldn’t such a man be relieved of his command? “Find out what Grant drinks,” said Lincoln, “and send a case of it to every other general I have.”

Here’s to the end of racism (harder to abolish than slavery). Cin-cin! (Or is that somehow racist?)


De la solitude

“Ce n’est pas que comme ils ne parlent que dans la nécessité, et qu’autant qu’il le faut, la modestie du silence ne paraisse même dans leurs discours; et ils se gardent si exactement dans tous les temps qu’ils sont obligés de parler, qu’on peut bien voir quand ils parlent que ce n’est pas par impuissance de se taire, mais par la crainte de manquer à leur devoir. Ce n’est pas comme ceux qui ayant quelque obligation de parler, le font avec une telle effusion et se répandent au dehors avec si peu de réserve, que leur volonté paraît jusque dans leur nécessité, outre que ne pouvant se taire quand ils ne sont point obligés de parler, ils nous font assez paraître leur inclination qui est si opposée au silence, dans le temps même qu’ils croient ne nous parler que par obligation.”

Jean Hamon, De la solitude (Amsterdam, 1734)


“The Ways of the Lord are Unfair”

I’ve been thinking about the response to the anti-quarantine protestors. I thought at first that it would be good if their actions had some consequences — that it would be fitting if they died of the disease, that there would be a “Darwinian” logic to that outcome. But then I remembered a verse from last year’s High Holidays. “Do you think God exults in the death of the wicked, and would not prefer that the wicked turn from their evil way and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23). What gets to me, and probably more than just me, is that we cannot convince the protestors, and Trump followers in general, that we are right. Maybe a great orator, a great trial lawyer, a great preacher could do it, but not me, not most of us. And we have to watch as they recklessly harm themselves and harm everyone whose space, within 5’11”, they invade. This great impotence, stemming from our compassion, is what angers us most of all. If we can do nothing, we turn to God, and what are His priorities? To let them live in the hope they will figure things out, a higher priority than immediate, visible punishment. We are left with that vexing reality. We can protect everyone we can, but it is not God’s priority to make a moral lesson out of those who ignore us.



April 17: The city of Chicago and the campus have been closed down for about a month. The library, most businesses and restaurants, and the building where I have my office are inaccessible. The parks are off limits. Summer travel is canceled. I stay at home. It’s not the end of the world, but it is an interruption of many of the things in the world that I rely on to make my life interesting, pleasant and meaningful: I mean meeting my classes, holding office hours, going to talks and conferences, traveling, having coffee with people, cooking for friends. It will be months before I can do any of those things again. With all those things suspended, and the word “social” now locked into partnership with its near-antonym “distancing” (not to mention the symptoms of unstopping decline into Caligula-like government by caprice), this house is my refuge. 

I am grateful to have a house in which to be confined for the duration with four people particularly dear to me. But all five of us have, or should have, lives and connections outside the narrow family circle: we thrive on the friendships, rivalries, news, contacts, that each brings back at the end of the day like ants returning to the nest. Email and videoconferencing don’t substitute for this shuttling away and back—not least because whatever pseudo-sociality we can now enjoy with the outside world is done in the presence of the whole family. 

It would be worse without the telephone and the internet, but now, like those who lived through disasters of the past, we are finding out what we are made of. We are thrown back on our own resources. Our resources fortunately include, along with sacks of rice, cans of beans, and boxes of ramen, a few thousand books, to say nothing of other paper goods, and if the electricity fails and the Internet goes off, I can always light a candle and read Boethius, Montaigne, Li Qingzhao and Ring Lardner.

The moment I have said this, someone will complain that I’m speaking from a position of privilege. But books are cheap: most of mine were picked up used for a few dollars. The skill to choose them and the desire to read them weren’t acquired all in one place: some of that came to me for free, as a family heirloom, and some of it was handed on by teachers salaried on my behalf by non-profit institutions, public and private. I’m grateful for those lessons, for the shaping of the reading self that I underwent in those pre-social-isolation days. They were preparing me for this.

But let’s suppose the basement floods or the house burns, and the reader is left with nothing to read. If anyone asks what the humanities are good for, here’s my answer: the humanities are the arts that teach you how to have a meeting with yourself when even Zoom stops working.

Suspension: the Stoics, echoed by the phenomenologists, called it “epokhē.” It’s what happens when the object of your intention is taken away and you’re left with the pure structure of intending. Life feels more like that every day.


Time to Judge a Book by its Cover

I just learned about this compilation, haven’t had time to read it, but it easily wins the prize for most unfortunate title and cover design of the year. (Called to my attention by Flair Donglai Shi.)

Sopa de Wuhan: Pensiamento Contemporaneo En Tiempos de Pandema

Scopic, Oh So Scopic

I understand from the media that the coronavirus lockdown has been a heyday for porn sites, so much so that they’re opening access to all and sundry. Well, hooray for them and hooray for their users. I might as well admit to my perversion and see if there’s a site that caters to it.

I like watching sweaty girls go up against 100 or so men and women armed with devices of wood, string and brass. I like it when they gasp. I like it when they strain. Their expressions of satisfaction when something goes right transport me. They don’t have to be wearing particularly revealing clothing, but they usually are dressed in something a bit showy, not that you see much of that when they’re in action. As for the action, well, they are attacking a toothy, long-tailed, black monster with their slender arms and fingers. I cheer for them and expect them to triumph.

And they do! Those girls, dear reader, or women to be more accurate, are female ninja scholars trained in the toughest dojos of Asia, Europe, and America. They go up against the Grieg Concerto, the many Beethovens, the Schumanns, the Brahmses and other Rachmaninoffs, they grind their teeth, sweat, nearly collapse, and at the end someone brings them flowers.

I used to see this spectacle two or three times a year from the fourteenth or twentieth row, having paid handsomely for the privilege. Now Youtube gives my scopophilia nearly endless license, if I’m willing to be interrupted every ten minutes by an ad for some grammar correction app that I, having learned Latin by the sweat of my brow, don’t need.

Mais O, ces doigts d’enfants, tapant au Gewandhaus!


Remote Learning: Still Remote from Learning

Our kids’ school started remote learning today. It’s mediated by a platform called Seesaw which, despite having early notice of the likely surge in demand, hadn’t prepared the necessary servers and so crashed repeatedly (does this remind you of anything else?). We thus had three computers running different grades’ version of Seesaw remote learning, all timing out and crashing at once. The kids were already unhappy at the unexpected transformation of their parents into teachers. We know they can behave themselves at school, but they shed all those manners and pretenses of citizenship at the door, and now they had angry and impatient teachers who were beside them tapping at virtual buttons that were frozen, watching the precious fruits of twenty minutes’ coaxing suddenly vanish without a trace, and losing the point of the lesson (as well as any pedagogical authority). It was, in short, a rout, a fiasco, a débâcle, a hot mess, made worse by the thought in this parent’s mind that the graduate seminar due to be taught in a few days on an analogous platform will probably turn into a similar plate of slimy entrails.

It gave me a headache that is still going strong as of 8:13 pm.

There’s a form of learning that humans have engaged in for millennia: a bunch of learners, willing or unwilling, gather under a tree or in a room with a Subject Supposed to Know, who tells them stuff and maybe elicits questions better than the pre-planned palaver. Since remote learning is a skeuomorphic derivative of that, it is most effective when the game is played among people who have already developed the skills and instincts that go with sitting in a room with a bunch of other learners, giving side-eye to the loudmouths, locking eyes with the smartest or most attractive fellow seminarians, thinking (or not) before speaking one’s piece– it is therefore a foreign idiom to kids who are still learning to sit still and take turns. All the more when those kids are used to screens tempting and cajoling them with ready entertainment all the time: now, in an abrupt betrayal, it’s a dead video of their kindergarten teacher sitting on a sofa and trying to be cheery. To hell with that, they think, and behave accordingly. The parent, who has a million and two other things to do but is pushing them out of mind for the duration of the lesson time, gets stricter and stricter as discipline fails, and before long even a friendly inquiry (“is that how your teacher tells you to write an N?”) makes Child Two cut loose with a screaming tantrum and existential denunciations of all possible being and beings. I’d rather be on the golf course, and I hate golf.

Tomorrow, episode 2, and I wish I had a stash of happy pills.


From Sicily in Lockdown: Tino Caspanello Writes

Our correspondent in Pagliara (district of Messina), where the virus has not made itself known but the lockdown is strict as everywhere else in Italy, writes with a few reflections about the state of emergency.

If I think about the world in movement, excluding all physical definitions of “movement,” the one definition that comes to my mind is: production. A world in motion is a world that produces, whatever it may be that gets produced. From childhood on we are trained to produce, encouraged to do so and rewarded when we’ve made something, even a poop. Praise, candy, toys, pocket money—how many rewards do we receive from life? Action and reward. This pairing creates on one hand a condition of permanent immobility (society is stuck in childhood), on the other a persistent enslavement. At this point, to say that the world has stopped because of coronavirus seems to me no more than the recognition of a long-established fact: we haven’t stopped, we stopped a long time ago. The illusion of movement is given us as a “gift” by those in a position to manipulate the levers of government and production, those who are so good at manipulating them that we too carry them out in relation to ourselves and others, in the belief that no other worthy form of life is possible. To stop is frightening, because a world that stops its supply chains is, paradoxically, a world that breaks its chains and opens its cages, that reveals empty spaces that we no longer know how to fill, because we are trained to fill the gaps and we aren’t able to live in them, we have no idea how to do that. In saying this I do not intend in any way to express gratitude for circumstances that, like the current virus, attack life; I merely want to use this event as a pretext for shedding some light, for understanding the immensity of our error in binding our existences to the market, to business, to finance, and in making our lives depend on choices that are imposed on us together with the illusion that it is we who make those choices.

The adventurous history of the School of Chartres comes to mind, though I don’t know what prompted it: a School that tried to reread Aristotle in light of Christian thought. What sorts of ideas would have been active in the world if that School had not been censured? The same could be said of our system: was there no alternative? At that point there was some movement, but today our system no longer generates movement, and so, exactly as a virus does, it agitates below the surface to block movement, to forbid any human reaching toward abstraction, freedom, toward a form of growth concerning not only the economy but rather our consciousness of the self and of restraint. We have lost our own center, it has been hidden from us, our distraction from it has lost us our relation to the world. The illness begins here. After that come viruses, influenzas, downfalls. 

(Original text follows.)

Se penso al mondo in movimento, escludendo tutte le definizioni fisiche di qualsiasi “movimento”, l’unica definizione che mi viene in mente è: produzione. Un mondo che si muove è un mondo che produce, non importa che cosa. Fin da piccoli siamo educati a produrre qualcosa, incoraggiati a farlo e gratificati quando facciamo qualcosa, anche la cacca. La lode, la caramella, il giocattolo, lo stipendio, etc., quanti premi riceviamo nella vita? Azione e premio. Binomio che ha generato da un lato una immobilità permanente della nostra condizione (la società è ferma all’infanzia), dall’altro una perenne schiavitù. A questo punto, dire che il mondo, a causa del coronavirus, si è fermato, mi sembra soltanto la constatazione di un dato di fatto già in essere: non ci siamo fermati, siamo già fermi e da tanto tempo. L’illusione del movimento ci viene “regalata” da chi sa dosare gli strumenti del governo e della produzione, da chi sa dosarli così bene che anche noi li mettiamo in atto nei confronti di noi stessi o di altri, pensando che sia l’unico modo possibile per una vita dignitosa. Fermarsi però fa paura, perché un mondo che ferma la sua catena di produzione è, paradossalmente, un mondo che spezza le catene, che apre le gabbie, che mostra spazi vuoti che non sappiamo più come riempire, perché siamo educati a riempire i vuoti, non riusciamo a vivere in essi, non lo sappiamo più fare. Queste mie parole non vogliono certamente esprimere gratitudine verso gli incidenti che, come l’attuale virus, intaccano la vita, ma prendono spunto dall’incidente per cercare di fare luce, di comprendere quanto sia grande l’errore di legare la nostra esistenza al mercato, agli affari, alla finanza, di farla dipendere da scelte imposte con l’illusione di essere noi a farle quelle scelte.

Mi viene in mente, non so richiamata da cosa, l’avventurosa storia della Scuola di Chartres, dove si cercava di rileggere Aristotele alla luce di un pensiero cristiano. Quali idee avrebbero agito sul mondo se quella Scuola non fosse stata censurata? Lo stesso si potrebbe dire del nostro sistema: non c’era un’alternativa? Lì c’era del movimento, invece adesso il nostro sistema non genera movimento, anzi, proprio come un virus, agisce in profondità per impedirlo, per fermare ogni tensione umana verso l’astrazione, la libertà, verso una crescita che non può riguardare soltanto l’economia, ma riguarda esclusivamente la consapevolezza del sé e del limite. Abbiamo perduto il centro di noi stessi, ci è stato nascosto, ne siamo distratti e con esso abbiamo perduto la relazione col mondo. La malattia nasce da qui. Poi ci sono i virus, le influenze, le cadute.


The Concrete Box

I am not a hoarder of anything but books and CDs, and I have enough for the current purpose. It’s therefore been a shock to go to a cleaned-out Costco and see the work of real hoarders — whole sections cleaned out of paper goods, bottled water, alcohol, and other disinfectants, and baklava. I must confess that I took the last box of baklava but only after seeing an entire pallet of baklava higher up on the shelves. I do wonder how Minnesotans are doing; they are loath to take the last piece of pie, the last spoonful of Tater Tots, or the last Ole and Lena jokebook. They would probably wait for a sad person to come along, buy him the last Ole and Lena book, and walk out of the store.

The other sad thing about Costco unter militärischer Verwaltung is the amount of shouting and ordering that goes on. I suppose it’s needed to herd people and curb them from hoarding, but it feels to me like being in a detention center, admittedly a gentle one. I am obedient, I smile, I make little jokes, but there is a space between the TV aisles from which no one returns, and I note the endless line of people headed there. Perhaps they climb inside the giant screens and are suddenly in a better world.

Only one person spoke to me, about the circuitous lines to the checkout: “Why do they make it like Disneyland?” “Because there’s going to be a ride at the end.” I did not tell her that The Happiest Place On Earth had been shut down earlier that day.

It took me a while to shed the feeling of ruin: the titan of American consumer capitalism slain by its own shoppers. Its guardians will preside over less and less until finally, they are guarding perhaps one bottle of commodity Rosé and a box of Godiva Hollow Chocolates — perfect for that one post-apocalyptic romantic interlude between two chairs in a decorator-grey apartment. Then they will be at the end of their labors. They will run the End of Day Report, reconcile the tills, shut the lights, and pack up. “As it was for our fathers, so let it be with us,” they pray, and perhaps from there, outside of the big concrete box, their words will take flight.


Comes from reading too much Carl Schmitt

I was dismayed to see the quasi-automatic reply to the coronavirus situation registered by Giorgio Agamben, author of Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. For him, coronavirus has replaced terrorism as the Big Threat that legitimates totalitarian control– the new excuse for prolonging the “state of exception.” In his defense, I’d point out that it was posted on February 25, when there were only 219 cases reported in Italy and 11 deaths. But simple math would have permitted the distinguished philosopher to predict scenarios of transmission rate (in a range from worst-case to best-case) and consider whether measures to slow the spread were warranted. I think the reflex of likening every act of state power to the death camps of the Second World War has the disadvantage of blocking the question, where are the death camps we want to avoid? Are they visible in the empty streets of Rome and Palermo, or are they visible in the overcrowded ICUs of Bergamo and Milan where, lacking an adequate number of respirators, doctors have to decide which patients get a second chance at life?

It’s even more dismaying to see that, at that same moment, the kind of people whom Carl Schmitt would be cheering on to seize power and destroy the opposition in the name of the Ausnahmezustand were saying exactly the same thing as Agamben about pandemic hysteria advancing state encroachment. I put it down to coincidence rather than conspiracy. Schmitt happens. But good people find ways to keep Schmitt from happening. Flatten the curve, friends, even if the curve was a back-of-the-envelope schematic.


In a World This Brutal, Conviviality Has to Be Fought For

Geneviève Azam 

(Le Monde, March 13, 2020)

The world seems to be in a state of instability. Warnings pile up: unbearable inequalities, dependence on uncontrolled technical systems, the accelerating rate of climate chaos and of the extinction of living things, the uprooting of millions of people with no land to welcome them, pollution, a financial system on the verge of exploding, and now an epidemic: a long list of threats that undermine one’s confidence in the future, even the immediate future. We are not experiencing some momentary crisis, to be dealt with by means of a few corrective measures that will bring us back to “normal.” We face irreversible changes and outsize accelerations, exemplified in particular by ecological catastrophes. We are living in a time of collapse.

It is a political collapse as well. For decades now, states have sacrificed the public sphere, the commons, and have turned their societies into “appendices” of the market and the economy, following the expression of Karl Polanyi in his The Great Transformation (1944)—an economist who saw the vast “self-regulating” market as a “Satanic mill” and one of the causes of the fascisms of the 1930s. Since the coming of neoliberalism, the mill has expanded and overheated. As a result of adapting steadily to the laws of competition, life, in all its forms, human and non-human, is threatened—not just on a geological scale but on a historical one. History, which modernity conceived as the product of sovereign human action, no longer wholly answers to us. The earth and life forms strike back. We have triggered uncontrollable events that trigger one another. The neoliberal narrative of growing quality of life and health collapses as well.

Global capitalism responds to these events by a biopolitics like that already announced by Michel Foucault: the adaptation of populations takes the form of data collection, tracking, selection, confinement, walls, refugee camps, surveillance and repression. With the addition of artificial “intelligence” and algorithms, it is now carried out in more “rational” and industrial fashion.

But human creativity will not be controlled. Imagining collapse is also a shock that, far from paralyzing thought and action, seems on the contrary to liberate them from the progress-minded expectation of a future that sweeps us away from our presence in the world. It reveals the stakes and causes us to take leave of our illusions of a gradual transition, of an “end to the crisis” in linear and reversible time. It awakens the coming generations, whose concrete presence and whose commitments restore the meaning of world-making and shield us from apocalyptic fantasies that depend on the loss of meaning. To live in the world, to live on the earth, to reclaim lost territory, emptied, destroyed or defaced territory, is the common ground of many kinds of experience—concrete experiences of conviviality born from earthbound communities that include humans and non-humans and confront predatory, deterritorialized oligarchies.  

It is by refusing the techniques of catastrophe management, otherwise known as “reforms,” that a broken society can re-form itself, that other ways of life can take shape. The roundabout communities where “yellow vests” gather, those non-places of a life condemned to circulation without attachment, emerge from disaster. Conviviality rediscovered amid living things: it can come through ageoecology, agroforestry, permaculture, shortened production and consumption chains, workplace cooperation, social solidarity, simplicity and sharing, a welcome to migrants, occupation of territory, convivial, low-tech technologies. Society re-forms itself by abandoning the institutions of consumerism and the Uber-ized life, in such experiences of “pure, unalloyed joy” as were described by Simone Weil, observing the steelworkers’ strike of 1936. In place of the acceleration that shears off all attachments, rediscovered time takes its pace from living matter despoiled by the cadences of the industrial world. Conviviality becomes meaningful when lawyers on strike come together to secure law and justice, when teachers refuse to participate in algorithmic pedagogy, when railroad workers contest the dehumanization of closing ticket-windows, when over a thousand researchers call for disobedience, when the scale of local government becomes a political sticking-point of resistance to expanding urbanization. In a world this brutal, conviviality has to be fought for. 

Geneviève Azam (economist, essayist, member of the advisory board of ATTAC, www.attac.org) is also the author of Le Second Manifeste convivialiste, Actes Sud, 144 pages, 9.80 euros.

(Unauthorized, volunteer translation from the French by Haun Saussy. I welcome comments from the author, even grumpy ones.)


Making the Best of It

Parents of small children have written en masse to protest my latest song suggestion, so here’s something a little more uplifting. May it buoy you through the present crisis and obligation to perform “social distancing.”

P.S. Here’s a clip of R. Stevie not staying home:


Ineffective Affects

Like you (probably), I get about 60 emails every day from one or another political campaign begging me to send money. I hated the Citizens United decision the day it was announced, and I am reminded 60 times a day of why I hated it: the lifting of limits on campaign spending means that every candidate, even the ones who are against the disproportionate influence of money in politics, must constantly be on the treadmill of asking, asking, asking.

The campaign strategists know that the typical donor is receiving, oh, 60 emails a day asking for the same thing. So they need to get our attention. One method has been to go all Affect Theory and Drama Queen/King on us, staging freakouts in the subject line of the aforementioned emails.

I’m not unresponsive to affect, but the fakery and the emotional overdoing get on my nerves massively. I haven’t called anyone’s campaign hotline to say “You might have had my $5 because of the policies you push, but you alienated me with those ‘All is lost’ ‘Give up hope forever’ ‘Desperately asking for $2’ messages.”

One campaign, by a young fellow challenging a Republican stronghold out west, has been particularly egregious in playing the emotional card. The picture that comes with the email, of a well-put-together guy with a nicely-groomed beard, jars with the shrieking paranoia of the messages. A sequence:


accepting defeat

DESPERATE –> Trump coming tomorrow

I can’t sleep

please help

emergency (please read – don’t delete)

shutting down our office


shutting down our office

Our hearts are EXPLODING!!

hey are you okay [NAME]?

CATASTROPHE — packing our bags — in complete shock

[CANDIDATE] is freaking out

Republicans HUMILIATED (incredible, [NAME]!)

[NAME], let me explain

The cumulative effect is a kind of emotional abuse. And delete as you will, block as you will, the campaigns always find a way into your Inbox with another sender name. Give me a candidate who’s level-headed and talks about the issues, not emotional states. There’s enough turbulent affect out there already. Talk to me grown-up to grown-up.


My Favorite Candidate Dropped Out Today

I don’t have a television. But I guess it’s reasonable for people who have one to treat presidential candidates as potential roommates and rank them on the relevant criteria: fun to be with? colorful personality? somebody you won’t argue with a lot? grouches about the same things you do? presentable to the neighbors? has his/her own car? For if you have a TV, this person is going to be your roommate for the next four years, yawping and squawking at all kinds of moments while you’re cooking, looking for your glasses, or wishing you were somewhere else.

Being televisually impaired forces me to put aside the likability and electability measures and make lists of policies. The presidential election is actually a job interview. What are the criteria? Can the person do the job (does the person even know what the job is)? What about disease, unemployment, debt, inequality? If X happened, what would you see as the top priority? The second priority?

Now that my top candidate has bowed out, those who cheered her on with me are talking as if there’s no hope, as if the remaining candidates are each a take-it-or-leave-it package of inferior executables. But we know that policy statements are just words on paper unless there are the majorities to enact them, and policy ideas don’t go away when a candidate folds up the campaign. We can actually (radical notion) separate the candidates from the policies and insist that the policies of candidate P become a goal for candidate Q as candidate Q goes from the primaries to the general election, because we won’t stand to have them folded up and recycled along with the lawn signs for candidate P. The primaries should be testing grounds for ideas, recruitment fairs for high-level appointments, and thus a forum where policies get traction, not a demolition derby where a cartoon character annihilates another cartoon character and all he or she stood for.

We have over-personalized the presidency, loaded it with too many launch buttons, and it’s time we started pulling back on the cult of personality. How about the cult of policy? Let a hundred wonks wonk, I say. Those who can’t wonk the wonk have no business talking the talk.