Diary in the Time of Coronavirus (7)
by Paul Hudon
24 May, 2020
‘The fitful apprehension of history’ is a phrase I picked up four years ago come September. Apparently it was coined by Fredric Jameson, “an American Marxist philosopher.” This poses a problem because the phrase could be very useful just now while pairing the adjectives American and Marxist does not compute with a majority of Americans. So, right-off, you’ve lost most of your readers. Then you put the adjectives in front of the noun philosopher, and lose a further unknown percentage.
Going on half a century, American political culture has known a phase of rapid individualism, ever since Ronald Reagan announced it was Morning in America. Everything was privatized except religion. Clinton gave away our public airways. Trump is giving away our public lands. Ayn Rand, borderline psychotic, is occasionally still invoked as a genius of social thought, though she’s hardly needed now we have Bezos and Thiel and Musk to organize the res publica for us.
In 1815, and for ten, twenty years after, the French experienced a fitful apprehension of history. After a full quarter century of constitution writing and war fighting, it was time to take stock; and one of the salient features they noticed emerging was an antagonism between “individual” and “society.” In the late 20s the words “individualisme,” and “personalisme” made their appearance. Then, as the opposite of that, the word “socialisme.” This led soon enough to “psychologie,” and “sociologie.” They made up a family of words with a complex lineage. Like all families they didn’t always get along.
Socialism is not the opposite of capitalism. Socialism is the opposite of individualism. Capitalism is not our problem. The individual grown monstrous is our problem. In a stroke of perverse convenience, we have the monster embodied for us in the person of Donald Trump. He speaks and acts as a monster of self, the malignant caricature of self. Desperate and ignorant, lethal. There is one focus of the contest.
Another is the law. The individual operates among us in a carapace of legal fictions. Our way is to assume a radically biological predicate. Where life is the organization of signals, capital is a life.form. In a biological context, capital can be returned to its social functions. Economy and ecology can be kept in the same book.
The fitful apprehension of history is upon us. There’s no denying anymore a sense of foreboding that’s global. The EU project has stalled. Latin American hopes of the last generation have evaporated. Saudi Arabia is running out of money. The Palestinian people have been robbed of their land, their past, and their future. We Americans have taken a succession of hits beginning with the catastrophes visited on us by Osama bin Laden, compounded ten-fold by Bush and Cheney and their cheerful heavy metal band — Let’s just do it (what can possibly go wrong?).
And then of course there’s climate change, and, up-close and personal, Covid 19. We have plenty of justification for our feeling of dread. What our ancestors, not yet top of the food chain, felt when they saw a shadow not their own slowly take shape on the grass before them.
The good news is a lot of us are thinking seriously and together about our post-pandemic world. For instance, in France, the oldest and largest trade union, the CGT, and Greenpeace, along with some twenty other groups have issued a program of 34 action points agreed on after weeks of strenuous negotiation. The communiqué issued underlines that ‘the plan is an exit strategy for our social and ecological crisis”
The twining of social with ecological has Fenton more excited over developments than I’ve seen him in a long time. More hopeful. He says I should be too. “It’s the crux of your proposition in Time and the River,” he says. He means the web site launched in March ’03 where I proposed we build an e/brain to manage the waters of the Merrimack watershed. Fenton’s been urging me to make an attempt to get that another hearing. “It was radical back then. Nobody understood it was an answer because they didn’t know the questions.” He adds, “People now are ready for radical. All the question are right there. Big as life.” He has a point. Context rules and chronology is context.
This would be a good time to explain Fenton. November 1980, Reagan was just elected, and five of us are sitting in a booth at a local bar. All of us new-defeated lefties in a fitful apprehension of history. We’re talking strategy. What’s to be done. Do we stay put and pretend that Reagan is just another Republican or do we act on the instinct that the people who put Reagan in the White House are not your standard Republican conservatives. 1980 is really West Coast destroys East Coast. The country is about to take a hard right. So where do we put ourselves in the new spectrum. And I said, “I’m a radical on the American left.” Just threw it out there, the way you do in conversation. I was going to add, “Those words in that order.” But Fenton said it before I could. He said those words in that order with emphases in place. We looked at each other and that was that. Mind.meld. He’s been friend and counsel ever since.
The only difference between us is Fenton is more aggressive, more willing to stretch a fact to make the story work. He says I hang-back because my historian’s training left me with scruples about “evidence and such.” He’s right about that too.
Drove to Atamian’s at ten o’clock, to get the AC serviced on my fifteen year old Civic. I’m not usually willing to pay dealership rates for service, but went for it this time because transportation to and from was included in the price. A big deal in the time of coronavirus. Given the state of my lungs, driving with AC is more like oxygen tent than comfort.
“They” have been working on the electricals in this building for a week or more. This morning the fire-alarm went off twice before 8 a.m. That thing’ll get you out of the building just to get away from the sound of it. Normally, I’d slow-walk down the west stairway, very next door to mine. This morning I ignored it, banking on a statistically sure-thing. This morning wasn’t the first time.
The alarm went-off during the electrical storm that over-night with The Yellow Dog. The Lowell Fire Department sent one piece to check it out; usually see five or six pieces on these occasions, including a ladder. Alarms must have been going off all over Lowell that night.
Reading Simenon tell about ‘the virus’ of fear with only two batteries for light and that horn blaring not three feet from my door, did have a certain mise en scène. Something like a 30s B-movie, where shots are fired and screams “pierce the dark.” Simenon was born in 1903, in Liège, and was only eleven years old when German armies took the city, and a German administration ruled for the next four years. He saw first-hand during his “formative years” what fear does to a population. Becoming a crime reporter was like settling into the old neighborhood. Becoming a crime wrier was like building one.
Blah! NowhereTown. Tried to write but the writer is not in residence.
Bright, sunny morning. I notice a crew next door, at the grotto restoration, working on whatever that is I can’t see behind the roofline of the intervening building. Otherwise, the site has mostly lost its under construction look. Grass is growing-in here and there.
Crossing the Rourke bridge yesterday, from Middlesex to the VFW, I see construction has resumed on the enormous Market Basket going up on Old Ferry Road. Signs of normalcy returning. And what could be forward-looking than construction? It’ll be fun to see what traffic engineers come up with on this one, especially at the Middlesex end of the bridge.