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Monday, July 21, 2014


Having nothing better to do, I took a look at the Spam file attached to this blog and discovered some extremely interesting posts and back and forth.   I have not a clue why they got put into a spam file.  Does anyone know how to turn the damn spam filter off?  I would rather have a little bit of spam than lose these interesting comments.


During my morning walk, I noticed that ODEON and VENDOME and TROCADERO and BASTILLE had bullied their way back to the head of the line-up of Batobuses along the Seine, shoving Yves Montand and Jean Gabin to the rear again, so I guess the cultural upheaval has not materialized.


The funniest of the many writings of Karl Marx is The Holy Family, the boisterous attack on the so-called Young Hegelians by Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels.  My favorite passage is Marx’s faux serious discussion of The Absolute Fruit, his hilarious send-up of Hegelian metaphysics, but the book actually begins with a lengthy anatomization of Les Mystères de Paris, Eugène Sue’s interminable romantic novel.  [Back in the day when I was plowing through as much Marx as I could manage, I actually bought a three-volume edition of Sue’s novel, but it sits, chastely untouched, on my shelves in Chapel Hill.]

Susie and I have our own mystère de Paris, and yesterday evening we got a clue as to its solution.  Our little 330 square foot pied-a-terre is on the ground floor of a copropriété, the French version of a condominium association.  The entrance is a pair of grand French doors off an interior 17th century courtyard, but the one window looks out on rue Maître Albert.  Directly across the street is a little shop, and when we fold back the shutters and open the window, we are looking directly into it.  Over the ten years that we have owned the apartment, the shop has undergone transformations.  First it was a real estate office, then a general handyman shop offering plumbing, carpentry, electricity, and twenty-four hour locksmith service if you locked yourself out of your apartment.  Last year, two gay men opened a very upscale boutique called “Hug and You” that featured seven hundred dollar scarves, thousand dollar jeans [made to measure] and to-die-for two thousand dollar purses.  We have struck up a neighborly friendship with the proprietors, who spend hours out on the street gossiping with friends who come by in a seemingly endless stream.  The two of them live in the apartment just above the shop and have a large cat, whom Susie talks to when it pokes its head out of the window.

We have now spent eight weeks in our apartment during the lifetime of Hug and You, and we have not seen a single solitary person actually buy anything in the shop.  Lots of people walking by have paused to look at the mannequins in the window.  A few have even stepped inside to look around.  But no one, to our knowledge, has ever left carrying a Hug and You shopping bag.

So, our own personal mystère de Paris is this:  How on earth do these two nice men make any money?

Last night we got a clue.  We had walked across the street to have dinner at the pizza place just to the left of Hug and You, and since we were early and the restaurant was empty, the patron wandered over to our table to say hello.  [He knows that we live across the street.]  I leaned forward and said to him softly that the shop next door did not seem to have any customers.  He nodded knowingly and said, “Internet.”

Sure enough, when I Googled it, up came an attractive website with graphics and a video featuring the two proprietors.  So maybe they are making out like gangbusters online, and the shop is just for show.  I certainly hope so.  Susie and I are pulling for them to make a go of it.

Sunday, July 20, 2014


I have now finished reading The Ark Before Noah by Irving Finkel, who is described on the dust jacket as “Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages, and cultures at the British Museum.”  It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read.  Now, this means less than might at first appear, since, as I have often observed here, I read slowly and not a great deal.  But I have been at it, reading slowly, for the best part of eighty years, and in that time I have managed at my snail’s pace to plow through a considerable number of books.

It would be tedious and impractical for me to do what I would most like to do, which is simply to quote endless passages from Finkel and leave it to you to form your own opinion.  So in this post, I shall try to explain what has impressed me so powerfully about the book, aside from its sprightly style and Finkel’s delightful personality, which are on display on every page.  I urge you strongly to buy a copy and dig into it yourselves.

The oldest civilization known to us today arose in the fertile area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers [hence Meso-potamia] in what is, at least for the moment, Iraq.  Somewhere between five thousand and five thousand four hundred years ago, in that area, writing was invented – for the very first time, so far as anyone today knows  [although there is some argument to the effect that Egyptian hieroglyphics were invented in the same time period, possibly under the influence of cuneiform writing.]  The physical technique used at that time, more than five millennia ago, was to inscribe series of straight wedges in clay tablets with little sticks.  This system of writing is called “cuneiform,” from the Latin “cuneus” for “wedge.” The tablets, which for the most part were small enough to be held in one’s hand, rather like a PDA or large cellphone, were frequently inscribed with writing on both sides.  Some were fired in an oven to harden, others were simply allowed to dry in the sun to an acceptable hardness.  The invention of writing appears to have been spurred by the practical necessity of recording mercantile transactions and keeping track of supplies or promulgating state regulations, but as time went on, the tablets came to be used for personal letters, for literary works, for school exercises, for recording myths and legends, spells and incantations, and for every other purpose to which writing has been put ever since.


Let me say that again, because it is the single most astonishing fact I learned from Finkel’s book:


For sixty percent of all the time that human beings have been writing, some of them at least were making wedges in clay tablets with styli.  Clay tablets are quite durable, and at last 150,000 of them have been recovered from archeological digs here and there, many of course in damaged or fragmentary condition.

Finkel’s book is about a newly surfaced tablet that records a part of a version of an old and well-established story about a great flood and a boat built at the direction of a god to save a remnant of human and animal life from extinction.  [By the way, in the earliest version of the myth, the gods decide to wipe out human beings because they are too noisy!  Don’t you love it?]

Scholars have long known of a number of such myths, clearly much more ancient than the biblical story of Noah and serving as the sources for the Noah story.  Finkel’s excitement, which he communicates charmingly, derives from the fact that the phrase “the animals entered two by two,” long thought to have been a biblical innovation, appears on this Ark Tablet,” as he calls it, and – even more exciting – from the clear evidence that the ark commanded to be built by a god was an enormous coracle – which is to say, a perfectly circular boat made like a basket from a long, coiled rope sewn together and buttressed with ribs of wood.  These coracles were used by the ancient Mesopotamians and continued to be used right up to the point, not many years ago, when Saddam Hussein, for political reasons, drained the marshlands between the Tigris and Euphrates and thereby destroyed what is arguably the oldest continuous material culture known to man.

Like many humanist intellectuals, my picture of civilization and culture is powerfully shaped by the combined Graeco-Roman-Biblical tradition, whose recorded origins do not reach as far back as the beginning of the first millennium B. C.  The effect of Finkel’s book on me has been to provide a major corrective to that mental image.

Take a look at The Ark Before Noah.  I think it may have the same effect on you.


Saturday, July 19, 2014


While I have been blithely blogging away lightheartedly about matters of no importance, really awful things have been happening in the world.  I feel the need to say something here by way of acknowledgement of this reality, not because I have any useful thoughts to contribute to the public discussion but simply to pay respect to the dead and dying.

The Israeli invasion of Gaza is appalling, both in its brutality and in its wanton disregard for the rights of the Palestinians.  It is not necessary to trace out the sequence of attacks and counterattacks that have led to this invasion, nor is it necessary to detail the failures of wisdom and leadership on both sides.  The occupying power always bears the burden of responsibility for the violence attendant upon occupation -- whether it is Israel, Russia, America, Germany, France or China, or Rome or Persia or the Mongols, for that matter.  The occupying power always reacts with righteous anger when attacked, and always claims that its role as occupying power is thrust upon it reluctantly by the intransigence and violence of the occupied. 

The shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines jet is only made worse by the fact that one hundred of the murdered passengers were HIV-AIDS experts on their way to a conference.  It is not hard to guess what happened, though Obama is being appropriately cautious until the facts have been established.  Putin has been supplying the Ukrainian separatists with ever more sophisticated weaponry, which they have been using with his encouragement and approval to shoot down aircraft of the Ukrainian government.  The separatists, lacking well-trained operators with a command of radar and associated technology, mistook the domestic airliner for a military plane and shot it out of the sky, first bragging online of their accomplishment and then hurriedly taking the boast down when they discovered what they had done.  Since the U.S. does relatively little business with Russia, it feels free to impose economic sanctions, which do seem to be inflicting some damage on the Russian economy.  The Western European powers, some of which rely on Russian natural gas, have been reluctant to cooperate in the regime of sanctions, and are now in a bind because their nationals were among the victims.  What is interesting -- if that is an appropriate term to use in the presence of this crime -- is the extent to which even a continental power like Russia is dependent on its trade with the rest of the world, and hence is susceptible to economic pressure, rather than military threats.  There is after all something good to be said for international capitalism.


The Louvre is a very large building standing on the right bank in Paris.  It is essentially a long rectangle oriented east-west along the Seine.  Walking along the left bank this morning, heading for the Assembleé Nationale, I approached the point at which the Louvre begins across the river, and wondered to myself just how long it actually is.  As a philosopher, I should have been casting about for self-evident first premises from which I could deduce its length a priori.  As a Marxist social critic I should have been concerning myself with the structure of exploitation underlying its mystified façade.  But feeling rather chastened by Jamie’s correction of my uninformed speculations about contemporary academic Sociology, I decided to collect some facts.  Accordingly, as I passed the eastern end of the museum, I began to count my paces [a pace is two steps – left right.  I have short legs, so my paces are not much more than five feet each.]

I counted by tens, as is my wont, using my fingers to keep track of the hundreds so that I would not get distracted and lose my way.  By the time I had reached the bridge that crosses the Seine from the end of rue de Bac to the edge of the museum, I had reached 420 paces, which means that the Louvre is not that much under half a mile from one end to the other.  I think we can agree that that is a good deal of museum.

There is something curiously gratifying about personally collecting a fact, although as a philosopher and Marxist critic I would not hope to make a habit of it.  Now, about the underlying ideological significance of the Louvre ….

Friday, July 18, 2014


I retired six years ago, so I am a retired professor.  But I am not a retired philosopher.  I mean, you cannot retire from philosophy if you are a philosopher, any more than you can retire from poetry if you are a poet.  Of course, you may go for long periods without writing philosophy, or even longer periods of time without writing poetry.  If you are a novelist, you may also go for long periods of time without writing a novel.  Just ask J. D. Salinger, Ralph Ellison, or Joseph Heller.  But you are still a novelist, right?

Be that as it may, there are rules and regulations in the Academy, rules that determine, for example, which Dean you have to see about getting a phone in your office, and if you have given no visible evidence of activity conforming to your official job description for thirty years or so, you may run into resistance from the powers that be.  [After a number of years in the Afro-American Studies Department, I applied for a sabbatical leave.  Since I was required to state the research I proposed to undertake, I said I wanted to write my autobiography.  The Provost, Cora Marrett, who was in fact also a courtesy member of our department, turned me down on the grounds that it was not, given my professional specialty, an appropriate project.  I am very happy to report that she is now Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation, in which position she can ride herd on silly projects like mine nation-wide.]

But though I will, I guess, be a philosopher until I die, there being no established procedure for stripping me of my epaulets, I was reflecting today that for a long time now my mind has been very much less engaged with what passes for philosophy in the profession than with the concepts, insights, methods, and problems of the great tradition of social theory.  Looking back over the tutorials and mini-tutorials I have composed for this blog, I find that I have written at length about all four of the giants of the classical tradition:  Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Mannheim.  [I have long been enchanted by the fact that early in his career, W. E. B. Du Bois went abroad and studied with Max Weber.  For an opportunity like that I would have buckled down and really learned some German!]

These autobiographical reflections were triggered in me when there popped into my head, for no apparent reason, the phrase “the routinization of charisma,” which plays a role in Weber’s discussion of types of legitimate authority, one of the highpoints of his magisterial posthumous work, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft [Economy and Society.]  According to Wikipedia, “In 1998 the International Sociological Association listed this work as the most important sociological book of the 20th century.”  These days, it is the rare doctoral student in Sociology, I would bet, who has ever so much as held one of its volumes in his or her hands.  I genuinely believe that there has been an actual decline in our level of understanding of society in the last century, implausible as that may seem.

 I suppose I ought to explain “routinization of charisma” for anyone who has not encountered the expression.  Chrism, or myrrh, is holy oil, an oil consecrated by a priest and used in religious ceremonies to anoint someone.  By extension, charisma is the personal quality of someone who is perceived as having been anointed or chosen by God for some purpose.  In the course of his profound and very important explication of the origins and varieties of our belief in the legitimacy of the authority claimed by leaders or rulers, Weber argues that the most primitive and fundamental source of this belief is the personal quality of a great warrior or religious figure who inspires in those around him or her a willingness to follow even into battle or on a path of self-sacrifice.  St. Francis had this quality, as did Joan of Arc, Mohandas Gandhi, and many others.  The charisma attaches to the individual by virtue of his or her personal qualities, quite irrespective of lineage or royal appointment or “the consent of the governed.”  Weber labels this personal ability to command the loyalty and sacrifice of others “charismatic authority.”  Note that Weber is not seeking to justify authority claims, but rather to explain a familiar and important social phenomenon.  A somewhat vulgar and debased variant of charismatic authority is what is sometimes called “star quality,” often claimed for entertainers and contemporary politicians.

Because the individual’s success in commanding the loyalty and obedience of followers flows directly from his or her personal qualities --   courage, daring, skill with weapons, saintliness, selflessness – it cannot easily be transferred to a son or daughter or to a faithful follower.  But time passes, and the warrior grows old, the saint feeble.  Unless procedures are established for passing the mantle of leadership to a representative of a new generation, who may of course quite lack the charisma of the old leader, either what has been accomplished through the efforts of the charismatic leader will disappear, or a destructive struggle will break out for the succession.  Inevitably, what began as the individual authority of the remarkable individual comes to be transformed into a stable and transferable claim to rule, capable of being transmitted from generation to generation.

The charisma is routinized.