Maybe God didn't drop by at all

Shaw, Irwin. 1973. God was here but He left early. New York: Arbor House.

I had this book on my "to read some day" shelf for so long that I finally took it down last night & read it. Two short stories (about magazine length) and 3 long ones (70 pp. or more, too long for the magazines). The blurbs have it right: Shaw was a skilled story-crafter. He created intriguing situations, and vivid characters who talked in revealing and often arresting ways. But--

The longer pieces are comic fantasies, like Vonnegut but without the mad imagination. In "Whispers in Bedlam," a not very bright professional football player who has never thought deeply about anything suddenly acquires the power to hear distant whispers and even unspoken thoughts -- enabling him to acquire riches and fame (in business, poker, and football) but revealing a world of hypocrisy and deceit that so horrifies him that... Well, you can guess the rest. In "The Mannichon Solution," a nebbish chemist working in the detergents department while dreaming of the Nobel Prize accidently discovers a solution that might make him rich and famous but that kills any organism with yellow pigment, and for which the only likely buyer is the C.I.A. (to drop into the Yangtze to solve the "yellow peril" problem). And "Small Saturday" links the efforts of a little bookseller to get a date with a bigger woman to the stories of each of the women he calls-- clever, cute, but not very probing bouquet of anecdotes about the NYC singles scene circa 1967.

Of the shorter pieces, "Where all things wise and fair descend" is mostly an opportunity for Shaw to quote some of his favorite 19th century poetry, which contributes sweetly to the maturing of a nice, good-hearted college boy. Don't bother, unless you want to read Shelley and don't happen to have a copy of the original handy.

The title story is the best -- though the cute title has almost nothing to do with it. A very believable, attractive, intelligent and divorced American professional woman is trying rather desperately to arrange an abortion in Europe. We never learn whether she succeeds or not, because what interests Shaw is how she develops and what she learns in her sometimes cagey, sometimes direct attempts to achieve something that Is Just Not Talked About.

Like the critics say, Shaw's writing did sometimes remind me of Hemingway, especially in the title story, which is about the revelation of character rather than the closure of some action. But then, Hemingway's famous story "Hills like White Elephants" is so much subtler that some readers don't even recognize that it's about the same subject.

A peek into mad America

A link from another site got me to the Drudge Report, which was like peeking into the fantasies of Hieronymus Bosch (except that Bosch's madness was more coherent). First I found an ad for a pamphlet proving that global warming is all a big lie. We'll all be able to drive our SUVs all the way to heaven (special provision in the Rapture). NewsMax.com: America's News Page But for truly concentrated looniness, check out the designed-to-offend T-shirts.

(Wait a minute, that's all wrong! Drudge's site is in almost every sense the opposite of Bosch: Drudge features chaotic and higgledy-piggledy ad placement instead of an artistic sense of harmony and disharmony, highlights safe prejudices instead of dangerous passions, and anxieties about homosexuals, liberals, immigrants, feminists, whatever instead of the true terror being or becoming the most monstrous "Other" of all-- the anti-Christ or one of his minions-- without knowing it. So despite my first misguided metaphor, I'll leave the image up here, because Bosch is so much more interesting to look at.)

Image from Web Museum


Thinking about space

Harvey, David. 2006. Spaces of Global Capitalism. London, New York: Verso.

2 lectures & an essay presented at Heidelberg in 2004.

“Neo-liberalism and the restoration of class power” is about how Reagan & Thatcher led the neo-con or neo-liberal counterrevolution, so that “Freedom” (as in “Operation Iraqi Freedom”) means freedom for the likes of Haliburton, Bechtel, BP et al. Not new information, but coherently assembled.

“Notes towards a theory of uneven geographical development” is just that, notes and rather rough ones, where he is exploring how “several overlapping ways of thinking about” uneven development (why some places are so much richer than others) can be harnessed to a common theory. He lists these more conventional approaches as
1) Historicist/diffusionist interpretations (the poorer places just haven’t caught up yet)
2) “Development of underdevelopment” (poverty and political weakness in poor areas are deliberately constructed by corporations & governments wanting to exploit their resources at the cheapest possible price)
3) Environmentalist explanations, such as Jared Diamond’s (some places were just luckier with their climates and other natural resources)
Harvey thinks all three approaches have merit, i.e., explain parts of the phenomena, and wants to integrate them into one theory. But, as he acknowledges, he still has work to do.

Most interesting (to me) was the essay he calls “Space as a key word,” as a proposed addition to Raymond Williams’ famous book.

Just what is “space”? It has to be something entirely different to a building contractor or to Stephen Hawking, and neither of them (usually) means the same thing as an artist or poet who talks about “conceptual space.” As a geographer, Harvey is professionally interested in space, and wants to consider all its types and how they impinge on one another. He is most impressed by (a) a three-fold typology he himself came up with in a book more than 30 years ago, & (b) Lefebvre’s 3-fold distinction (see below), which he combines in a three-by-three matrix (nine cells) which don’t prove anything, but do generate some interesting new possibilities for thinking about space.

Harvey’s 1973 classification was “absolute space” as “a ‘thing in itself’ with an existence independent of matter” ; “relative space” or how real, materially existing objects relate to one another; and finally “relational space… regarded in the manner of Leibniz, as being contained in objects in the sense that an object can be said to exist only insofar as it contains and represents within itself relationships to other objects.”

I think I get that last one, but that surely is not the clearest possible way to describe it (and I hope we don’t have to buy into Leibniz’s “monad” theory). In political thought, “the left” is such a relational space. It has no real, material existence, and has no meaning except in relation to the political “right.” The second one, relative space, is no problem either: we are talking about real things, like mountains of hard rock or the jumble of objects on my desk, where one thing may be on top of, or under, or behind, etc. some other thing (especially when I’m trying to find it). I’m having a little more trouble with “absolute space” but maybe he’s thinking of something like (as though there were anything like) the universe. Space as conceived by physicists, I suppose.

Harvey paraphrases Lefebvre’s categories as (1) the space of experience and of perception open to physical touch and sensation (what the building contractor or the guys in the storage depot mean by “space,” how many real physical things will fit and how); (2) the representation of space (e.g., paintings, photographs or diagrams, or the hand-signals you make when telling somebody how to get to the Angelika Movie Theater); and (3) spaces of representations, or “the lived space of sensations, the imagination, emotions, and meanings incorporated into how we live day by day.”
I’m not sure that Lefebvre’s categories are all that different from Harvey’s other set, especially Lefebvre’s “spaces of representations” and “meanings” vs. Harvey’s (or Leibniz’s) “relational space.” And if they are not very different, then setting them up as a three-by-three matrix is not likely to yield much new information. But it is a mind-stretching exercise that architects, who must deal with all 9 cells, probably use without thinking about it.

Harvey, David. 1973. Social Justice and the City. London: Edward Arnold.
Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Translated by D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell.
Williams, Raymond. 1985. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About David Harvey

Images: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz from Wikipedia; Solar Earths from the BBC.

From Rasha in Beirut

My good friends Khalil and Lois Nakhleh in Ramallah forwarded these letters, which I then found on the web; maybe you've seen them already. They are very moving, intelligent and surprisingly sensible in the midst of the panic from bombings. publish.nyc.indymedia.org | Three Letters from Beirut

Rasha (I presume) must be Rasha Salti, who also wrote these entries in Beirut Diary: April 2005. Khalil & Lois describe themselves thus: "Lois is a Botanical Painter; Khalil is an independent thinker, researcher, and writer." Khalil, an Arab Israeli from a Christian family, was my colleague in the Sociology & Anthropology Department (before becoming independent, he was an anthropologist) at St. John's University in Minnesota about 30 years ago.


Ends & means in Lebanon and beyond

Is the attack on Lebanon "proportional" to the damage, or the threat of damage, to Israel? Is it "justified" before God, or international law, or history, or anything? And just what are "roots" of the Israeli-Arab conflict? Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers, as Condoleeza Rice has proclaimed? Or something much deeper, much older, like, for example the Balfour Declaration of 1917, or any of the many offenses Arabs, Israelis and their respective allies have committed against each other in the decades since? Or something even older?

Whatever my opinion, it's not going to persuade you. People remain very unpersuadable on questions framed this way. But if you want to read some opinions, here are a bunch: "public opinion" Israel Lebanon - Google News

But these are the wrong questions. Whether the attack is "proportional" depends on the question, for what ends? And whether it is "justified" can only be answered, not in terms of holy scripture or revelation, or even history, but its known or likely consequences.

I agree with that great philosopher of pragmatism Leon Trotsky, who argued that the problem was not whether the ends justify your means; the problem is to justify your ends. 1936: Their Morals and Ours. Let's look at Israeli ends and means.

Ehud Olmert said at first that his aim was to secure the release of three soldiers, one seized by Hamas and two by Hezbollah. That sounds absurd, because an air attack (in Lebanon) and tank assault (in Gaza) seem like the least likely ways to achieve it. Olmert is new at this governing business, but he can't be such a fool as that.

The second, more plausible announced aim is destroying Hezbollah's central command and its capacity to fire rockets into Israel. This I believe. But if so, it raises two further questions:

First, is this bombing campaign an effective means to that end? Maybe, but only for a time. But if Hezbollah is the target, the main victims are the Lebanese whom Israel officially regards as innocent. Even if all the present leadership of Hezbollah were killed, don't you think some other group, with or without the same name, would arise to avenge them?

Second and much more importantly, why such a puny goal? A lull in the attacks from Lebanon, rather than a permanent peace? And at such expense in terms of Israel's long-range security. Compare this to the visions that many other Israelis have had of Israel's future: a country with respectful, if often tense, relations with neighboring states and with its own growing Arab minority. Trade relations would strengthen other ties, and extending further rights to Palestinians with the opportunities to lead productive lives would (it was expected) evaporate much of the hostility and be beneficial to both parties. Among those with such a vision was a famous general: Yitzhak Rabin

The Israeli offensive is not getting at "the root cause," because there are always deeper roots. It is not making Israelis safer in the short run -- scores have already been killed in what Hezbollah describes as reprisal missile attacks. And it certainly isn't going to make them safer in the long run. Yes, Israel must defend itself because it has enemies who want to destroy it utterly. But this response to its enemies is increasing their passion and their number.

And not to mention the agony of Lebanon and the continued punishment of the Gazans.


Samson Option: Israel's Plan to Prevent Mass Destruction Attacks

I referred to this in a comment (in answer to Bill Wheaton, in the note below on the "Lebanese bloggers"). I thought you (and I) might want to know more: Samson Option: Israel's Plan to Prevent Mass Destruction Attacks. This is mostly a paraphrase and summary of Seymour Hersh's 1992 book of that title. And here's a review of a more recent book on the same subject: The Samson Option

Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution

Though it came out in Mother Jones last October, I just now discovered this interview of Richard Gott on his new book. His analysis sounds right to me: Hugo Chávez is an original figure, open to new ideas, and almost certainly doing more good than harm by addressing long-standing injustices. Of course, he is very excitable and says some wild and occasionally crude things, and his improvised economics is a little disturbing (a lot of spending, a lot of waste -- and the oil revenue can't last forever). But the mix of panic and disdain he inspires in the mainstream U.S. and European press is at least as exaggerated. Gott's comments on the new media law (hardly as drastic as similar laws in western Europe) and court reform should help restore sanity to the discussion. Hugo Chavez and His Bolivarian Revolution