Author: James Livingston

Slave Play

Last night my girlfriend and I saw “Slave Play,” the sensational new work by Jeremy O. Harris from the Yale School of Drama (at least four other alumni are in the cast).  With excruciating forensic detail, it shows how race and sex have always gone together in this part of the world, in ways that make us sick, and suffer, and try to recover from what the therapists call “desire disorder.”  Also in ways that might heal us.  I read no reviews before seeing it, and I haven’t read any since.  It’s the kind of theater you want to experience first-hand, so that no audience or critic comes between you and the performance.  This is a mistake, of course, because there’s no such thing as pure experience—it’s always raw material; waiting for the retrospect, the narrative, that might, just might, make sense of it. That’s the lesson psychoanalysis taught us.  Freud, Ferenczi, Laplanche, and Lacan also taught us that each stage of childhood development doesn’t displace its predecessors—instead it changes their cognitive status and their social or political consequences.   They remain as durable residues, constantly detaining and deforming those who make it to adulthood.    “Slave Play” works like a shrink would, in this sense, probing the antecedents for narrative clues, not causative conditions, and indeed its second act—but there’s no intermission—is a group therapy session run by two...

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Trump, the Attempted Cure

To say that Trump’s tweets on Epstein’s death are demented is to suggest that he’s suffering from a disease.  He’s not, and to say so is to dignify his cretinous behavior.  This so-called man has been peddling conspiracy theories all his life.     Which is to say he’s been bullshitting, in the technical sense, all his life. As Harry Frankfurt, the expert on the subject, would say, the liar knows the truth and countermands it for a specific purpose, whereas the bullshitter is actually incapable of acknowledging any reality external to his own utterance.      Conspiracy theories thrive on a tragic scheme of motives that, as Kenneth Burke explained, bend toward both the supernatural (vertical) and the utilitarian (horizontal).  The inscrutable Gods up there have convened, and so have the international bankers (the Jews, of course) down here–there’s no way to identify them, nor their purposes, but they are so fundamentally causative that their effects are everywhere.  The conspiracy theorist has faith in the sense that Paul the Apostle, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, described it: “the conviction of things unseen.”    Trump the bullshitter has entertained a lot of conspiracy theories in the course of his so-called career, most importantly the “birther” business about Obama, which made him the president of the United States, dedicated to undoing everything his African-American predecessor had accomplished.  His political capital, like...

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I Can Smell Death

I’m a turkey vulture, Cathartes aurain scientific ornithology.  I’m an ugly old bird, just about dead, but that name matters to me.  It’s from the Greek katharsis, which means to purify or cleanse.  To transform, anyway.  I don’t fly a lot these days because when I spread my wings, to 8 feet, it scares the shit out of everybody, including the morons with guns down below.  They think I’m coming for them.  I am, of course, but later, when they’re dead.  One of them tagged me today, almost blew off my left wing. I guess that’s why I walked these blocks up from the park, why I’m pecking at this mess on Donaldson Street.  A dog got run over.   Sure, it’s gross, you think vultures like what they have to for for a living?  Not anymore than you do.  We do it because we have to.  We’re not equipped to hunt animals down. We’re parasites, like you.  We wait on your demise and decomposition–although it’s true, we prefer fresh carrion, and some of us have attacked small mammals. I eat anything that is, in fact, dead.  That’s what vultures do, it’s our brand, you could say, speaking without permission of the species—the comrades, I should say–I’m just thinking out loud.  But remember this, what sets us apart from all other birds is that we can smell death, even while...

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Fear of Falling Interest Rates.

The chair of the Fed announced yesterday that interest rates will fall, and soon.  So what?  Why is low inflation bad for the economy, and why does it present a problem for the Fed’s Governors, particularly the Star Chamber we call the Federal Open Market Committee? Good questions.  Keynes once quipped that rapid inflation “armed enterprise against accumulation” by devaluing existing assets and making repayment of loans easier for both entrepreneurs and consumers. In this as in so much else, he was right. How so? The value of existing assets is enhanced by inflation that clocks below the Fed’s target rate of 2% annually. That enhancement dampens demand for credit from entrepreneurs, resulting in lower investment and innovation, presumably slower growth. It also encourages going concerns to stand pat, to hoard their cash, which compounds the prospect of slower growth and thus lowers everyone’s expectations. Meanwhile, debtors, especially consumers, can’t discount their loan obligations, by paying off loans in dollars worth less than they borrowed. Moreover, if inflation is below target, what can cuts in interest rates cause? The real interest rate (adjusted for, uh, inflation) in large swaths of Europe and in japan is now at zero or below. It’s not far from that in the US. What can the Fed do the next time crisis strikes (and it will), if monetary policy is the only arrow in...

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Ahoy, Herman, hear you ran aground.

Jill Lepore’s lovely New Yorker piece on the “domestic” Melville reminds me of Lewis Mumford’s path-breaking biography, published in 1929, before he turned from literary history to the history of, well, everything else, from technology to architecture and cities, from Technics and Civilization (1934), perhaps his most important book, on toward The City in History (1962).  But then I grew up on Mumford, so almost all intellectual occasions point me back to the days in my 20s when I was first bedazzled by The Golden Day (1926), the brilliant study of American culture that completed the rediscovery and rehabilitation of American literature, by positing the authors of the 1850s—Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Thoreau, Dickinson—as the pinnacle of American literary achievement. Just as F. O. Matthiessen would follow Mumford’s lead in proclaiming an American Renaissance in the 1850s, so young Lewis was following the lead of Van Wyck Brooks, whose Letters and Leadership (1917) and America’s Coming of Age (1918 ) had unearthed a potential canon in the literary upheaval of the pre-Civil War decade.  But both Brooks and Mumford were consciously recapitulating and complicating the itinerary of D. H. Lawrence, whose Studies in Classic American Literature (1912?) had made the case for serious attention to the gothic extremities of these romance-besotted writers. Mumford’s biography of Melville is remarkable for the same reasons Lepore’s essay is.  First, they try to...

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