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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

the foolish exchange in the age of precarity

“… precarity is not a provisional, transient, resolvable juncture of social and productive relations. Precarity is the time that comes after modernity.”

I have often thought that the problem with many leftist theorists is that, in the wake of Adorno, it seems to be a competition for who will be direst.  Substituting for the old appeal to class solidarity the new appeal to the most sensational museum of horrors. Less revolutionary uplift, more history as slash film binging – in which the goal is to develop the best perch from which to say I told you so.

Well, my instinct is to say: fuck that. It seems like a perversion of the honest prophet’s standard, which is to endure visions that are supposed to lead to repentance and reform – which are downers, aesthetically, posed next to catharsis, I do confess, but which are redeemed by utopia, which better be on the horizon or we really are going to be imprisoned in the slasher flick.

That said, Franco Berandi Bifo’s phrase – which I take from his introduction to Frederico Campagna’s The Last Night – seems to resonate with current circs. Precarity has been in the vocabulary for some time now, but as a scandal – as an aberration that a sound economic policy would heal. Bifo is right, however – it is becoming a culture. Far from being an aberration of neo-liberalism, it is intrinsic to devolving all power to the market, and thus arming private power with an enormous weapon, threatening the vast majority in their routines and nests.

I don’t know when I first heard the phrase “your money or your life”, but my guess is that it was either uttered by a cartoon animal or by an old movie actor in some film on Channel 17 – which was the channel for old movies in the Atlanta area when I was growing up. And no doubt I said it too, playing highwayman. The stagecoach robber, who in his own time was summarily strung up when caught, became encrusted with movie glamor over the centuries – something that Henry Fielding, who caught a mess of them, is no doubt chuckling about in Heaven. I did not know, however, that this mantra, much more than the pledge of allegiance or the Lord’s prayer, would basically guide my life, and the life of my playmates, teachers, parents, their friends, and the community as a whole. At the time I was growing up – I was what, 12 in 1969/70? – there was a sense abroad in the country that life more abundant was the question we had to face. Civil rights and the sexual revolution and prosperity for the workers and the white collar middle managers was just going to go on forever. It was a delusion. Most of my life has been spent in the ruins of that delusion (although don’t tell the American media, which still exudes the belief that the middle class, defined as those making 400,000 and more a year, are the defining feature of the American landscape). This pandemic shows the extent to which the highwayman’s slogan is breathing down our necks every day.
There have been worse pandemics. But I can’t remember worse state responses. I want the glamor back, at least. Everywhere, the neoliberal state shows that in its obsession with finance, its structured inequality, its devotion of state power to the expansion of the reach and wealth of the upper one percent, it has become an actual menace to its citizens. I wonder if I will ever see the day when the majority just casts off its servility and turns the question on the overseers of our misery. I wonder if the age of precarity is here to stay. Everything in me says that it can’t be like this forever.


In Matthew 16: 25, Jesus sez: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

In the neoliberal era, we have an easy answer:  we don’t have souls! It is a LOL era, and every new atheist can join in and jeer. Myself, though, I think it is the basic question, the one at the root of our time, the question that pervades our economy and our time.

In a sermon entitled Foolish Exchange, the seventeenth century divine Jeremy Taylor did an eloquent song and dance around this saying, in the high Anglican style, rooting through  every word in Greek and Latin. William Hazlitt, in an essay comparing Taylor to Francis Bacon and Thomas Browne, wrote, justly that we do not come to Taylor for new reasons, but for textures. “and enters into all the items of the debtor and creditor account between life and death, grace and nature, faith and good works.” Hazlitt’s metaphor of the account serves us well here, and shows what a keen sense Hazlitt had for the motif. The sermon, as Hazlitt’s description makes plain, is kin to the novel, a secret sharer of that device for making sense of the ceaseless and perhaps senseless flow of what is. As a man at the edge of the era’s conventional and unconventional wisdom, Taylor fastens on to an exchange that is beginning to be called into question by new terms in the new philosophy. He is still immersed in the traditional order, and that makes his exposition about what it means to gain the world of historical and anthropological interest, especially as it casts light on the age old suppositions about fortune and the limits of plenty – the old image of the limited good, the zero sum, the Malthusian limit under which the people of the seventeenth century thought of themselves, just as the figures in Grimm’s Tales thought of themselves, still absorbing the discoveries in America and the Indies.

“First, then, suppose a man gets all the world, what is it that he gets? It is a bubble and a phantasm, and hath no reality beyond a present transient  use; a thing that is impossible to be enjoyed, because its furits and usages are transmitted to us by parts and by succession. He that hath all the world (if we can suppose such a man) cannot have a dish of fresh summer-fruits in the midst of winter, not so much as a green fig; and very much of its possessions is so hid, so fugacious, and of so uncertain purchase, that it is like the riches of the sea to the lord of the shore; all the fish and wealth within all its hollowness are his, but he is never the better for what he cannot get: all the shell-fishes that produce pearl, produce not for him.”

Taylor’s image is not irrelevant, even in a time in which we can get green figs out of season, due to the endless logistics of global trade, the technologies of freezing and fertilizer and the ceaseless exploitation of man and topsoil. We can get foods from Thailand and Iceland if we live in a metropolis big enough to boost of ethnic restaurants. We can enjoy avocados in piles in the Von’s grocery store in Los Angeles in December. However, what we know, or think we know, from the theory of marginal disutility, is that having a billion dollars can buy you a sickening amount of avocadoes, but not the body or appetite to swallow them all down. We know that it is extremely hard to live a lifestyle that actually absorbs a billion dollars – billionaires turn out not to be epicurians, for the most part, but tyrants. It is not the enjoyment of the world, but the power over the world that is the lure in this exchange.

One that, of course, depends, crucially, on the soul. For “soul” in this exchange we might tend to substitute “life”, thinking ourselves quite the enlightened wits and avoiding religiously drenched sentiment. I think, however, that life is as superstitious an entity in this discourse, as imprecise a nominator, than soul – for we are talking about desire, awareness, intention, dreaming, the whole bundle of things that go into the human biographies we walk among, we remember, we are. And even, I dare say, of human things – soul food or Baudelaire’s the soul of wine, soul music and our, if Nelson George is right, post-soul culture.

In Emil Kauler’s standard “A History of Marginal Utility”, the background reference to the ancients is more Aristotle than Jesus. Reference to the Foolish Exchange passage is entirely absent. Rather, Kauler makes various  encouragingly positivist remarks the general indifference of the science of economics  towards religion, such as “Economists [of the 19th century] no longer thought consistently in accordance with their religious backgrounds.”  In other words, during the work week, they cast of the mind-forged manacles of man, and only on Sunday did they don them, for the purposes of decorum and the beauties of choral music. One should remember here that economist refers to an institutional title, and does not refer to the practical economics being performed by laymen as the landlord pounds on the door for the rent.  

Marginal theory replaced the classical economics labor theory of value in the paradigm of the science in the late 19th, early twentieth century, the same period that saw the rise of department stores and the second wave of consumer culture – which I would date, symbolically, with the Singer company’s new pay on the installment plan sales pitch to households. The focus was shifted from production to consumption.

In William Stanley Jevon’s system, “utility changes with the rate in which the amount of goods changes” – thus making a plea for the older idea of supply restraints as being the ultimate determinant of prices. Yet Jevons was not your old-fangled Benthamite utilitarian, but the new type, applying a very British nominalism to the very concept of utility. Utility was ultimately determined by the subject, and one couldn’t really find a common essence that one could measure: “To speak simply of the value of one ounce of gold is as absurd as to speak of the ratio of the number seventeen.” Instead of measuring utility itself – that x for which man is exchanging his soul – we can only measure exchange, the relations between commodities and human product in the market – the market in which souls are traded. Jevons is proposing an early version of what would later be called revealed preferences – with the great revelator being the marketplace.

And it is in this matrix of unmeasurable subjects and their measurable addictions, or satisfactions, that we find ourselves and our souls now. Now, in the great pandemic.

From my own experience, the fear for myself and for others, and my observations of some of our buddies and family who are all undergoing le grand renfermement, the thing that is running in our heads is: are we going to die leaving these x-s and y-s – our scattered affections, our life in the office or jerking-off, our sense of politics and literature or video games or junk food behind us as our definition, who we are, what we gained?  In the grand all about, we have pretty much dispensed with the afterlife as a justification. We, here, is actually a minority – I imagine a majority of the population has some idea of the afterlife that I and my system of cultural references don’t share. A more robust sense of heaven and hell, or an other sense altogether.

The margins have had their victory over the marginals. But I’m thinking that this is not the end of the story.

Monday, May 25, 2020

What you get for thinking - a poem by Karen Chamisso

Baby baby they sing they say
They hold on they hold out they lay there
Dead to go and going to stay
Baby Baby they clutch everywhere

That is me, the everywhere my traveling show
Of me and mine and all things divine
-ly self that is dead to go
In the utter throb of my mother line

From the thumb to my heart, you got that?
Baby baby until I stand
Wrinkle in one hand, what I spat
Out in the other, not understanding, you understand?
-Karen Chamisso

Saturday, May 23, 2020

the déjà-ecrit

We all have experienced déjà-vu. But what writer has not experienced, as well, déjà-ecrit - the feeling that the thing one is writing has been written before, must have been written before. It is the feeling that reading what you have writen precedes what you have written - and if you have read it, it must have been written by someone somewhere. Going for the gusto, here, I'd guess that the best things - or many of the best things - are written with this eerie feeling. It is a wobble in the author’s authority, for neither the writer nor anyone that the writer knows wrote the sentence, exactly. mene, tekel, upharsin, baby.

Friday, May 22, 2020

The easy re-election that wasn't: Trump in the chute

One of the odder things about American politics this year is the missed opportunity: Trump could be cruising to an easy re-election if he had operated early and not acted crazy. I mean, this is not really an ideological issue. When Richard Nixon upset conservatives by, say, going to China, or installing price controls, he did so because he knew he could steamroller the right and extend his power. Trump resembles Nixon in his attitudes, but he is a very limited man, basically a stupid man, and so doesn't have Nixon's artfulness.
If you look at how the governor's have dealt with the plague, the striking thing is that certain Democratic governors, like Cuomo, were criminally late to do anything, whereas certain Republican governors, like the one in Maryland and whatshisname in Ohio, were on the spot, as much as they could be. In other words, the choice of shutting everything down everything early, masking, social distancing, etc. could easily have been taken by Trump without contradicting anything in his politics. But, like other Western leaders - Macron, Gonzalez, [Oops - kind reader in comments corrects me - Sanchez. Gonzalez was prime minister ages ago!] Johnson, etc., - he did nothing because for him, Asia is way over there and how about that there swine flu scare in the seventies? Rightwing governments like Hungary and Slovakia did the lockdown and tailored it into their racist ideologies - but having made his initial, disastrous mistake, Trump did not know how to tack. He did not see that his Dem opponents, having been mostly as ignorant and arrogant, gave him a great opening. So he went down the chute, from pointless hectoring press conferences to lies about chlorox and hydroxychloroquine.

Now, 96,000 deaths and counting later, he has waded too thick in blood to turn back.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Plutocrat's ball - you just live here

"While the Fed says it does not seek to keep stock prices up, the market has rebounded some 30 percent since the institution began its giant program to pump trillions of dollars into financial markets. It has bought billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. Treasury bonds and government-insured mortgage bonds, keeping the prices of those bonds up and pushing yields, which move in the opposite direction, down.
The Fed also announced recently that it would start to buy exchange-traded funds that hold a diversified portfolio representing large parts of the more than $9 trillion corporate bond market and would move on to buying corporate bonds directly “in the near future.” Since such bonds serve as the basis for new borrowings, this lowers the cost of raising money for corporations tapping the bond markets."

Jotted on a wet napkin

I had a lotta skin in the game of skin.
Being all bone I sat alone.
The night wanted to wrap itself around me tight

maybe choke me like an illmet date, late.
I drew the skin of my teeth too 
From the deck full of Ensor grins.

What are we playing for I asked skin at the door.
Cruelty, adultery, usual stakes
Sez Skin, hurry and draw it will soon be dawn.

- Karen Chamisso

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

notes of a useful idiot

In the Futurist Manifesto, A slap in the face of public taste, Khlebnikov, Mayakovsky, Burlyuk and Kruchenykh defended these theses concerning the rights of poets:
1 -  To enlarge the scope of the poet’s vocabulary with arbitrary and derivative words.
2-    To feel insuperable hatred for the language that existed before them.
3.      To tear with horror from our proud foreheads the wreath of cheap fame which you have made from bathhouse switches.
4.      To stand on the rock of the word “we” amid the sea of catcalls and outrage.

I at first glance, I am not sure about one, believe strongly that 2 is insane, agree with three, and certainly understand and sympathize with 4. Celebrity now is woven of other materials and immaterials – a Youtube channel, an invite to the Miami Basel Plutocrats of Art fair, etc. And alas, the “we” of  a movement of any kind, determined to undo the long bondage of poetry to banality, has disappeared into a blurbish train of watered CVs and the insuperable tones of the NPR poetry reader- a voice that is like a bullet directed at the heart of poetry itself. I’d like to think the bullet won’t work, and that poetry has the vampirish quality of coming alive in every coffin it is buried in when the moon is right.  You can put it down, but it will be back, swinging an axe and breaking in your door.
One, though: I like the spirit of it. I wonder if this is how Twitter, Tik Tok, blogs and the infinite cesspool of comments on Internet is all, somehow, quicksilver to me. The slang, the acronyms, the rapid erasures of jargon and slogan, I am in love with them beyond any ideological position. I’m pretty sure there are no arbitrary words – I’m too Freudian for that. But there are emergents all the time. I often find myself banging out words that do not exist in a dictionary, but should.
So: I’m no retro-futurist, but I am a useful idiot. That counts for something.  

Monday, May 18, 2020

time of our time: Virilio and the Lockdown

In one of his apocalyptic essays, “Une anthropologie du presentiment”, Paul Virilio (a writer whose lightning stroke provocations are bodyguarded by a certain dark mumbo-jumbo, a logic of the worst case scenario, like a man who had been up all night reading, alternatively, Michel Foucault and St. John of Patmos) quotes a line of Octavio Paz:

 “the instant is an uninhabitable as the future”. 

For Virilio, we have been forced to inhabit that inhabitability – this is the crazy-making effect of the acceleration and massive accumulative power of our system of telecommunications:

“In fact, can we still speak of a contemporary world? Shouldn’t we, rather, speak of the anthropology of a world that is not “intemporal”, but in-temporary, intemporal, if this is even possible? Is an anthropology of the instance conceivable, and can it be llogical without denying, in the same gesture, its fully historical dimension?”

If there ever was a time that a certain apocalyptic strain in French philosophy seems to have found the object it was looking for, it is this plague pause, this breaking apart of the con-temporary, this pandemic that came to us on the wings of globalization. Acceleration, the rat race, the routine of tasks that must be done, has suddenly come to a screeching halt, or perhaps a non-screeching one, as the great metropoles suddenly went quiet. And now, just as suddenly, the halt is lifting. What have we seen in this desert of the real, o Lord? A reed shaken in the wind?

Myself, I am fortunately a family man. Inhabiting an apartment in the Marais, of all places (such is the vagary of my never very consistent life, a three Stooge’s adventure), and looking out at a world of close calls without any one of those calls landing too close – though my hypochondria is always on low in the background – I have an odd sense that, for all the irreality that has rushed in on every front, this pandemic is somehow normal, somehow expected.  

I ventured out on un-lockdown weekend a couple of times, and took a gander at the neighborhood streets. I stood outside in line (so called – the French still, charmingly, object to the American submission to the “line” as a linear thing, preferring to cluster about) outside a bagel shop. I walked the boundaries. I saw many masked people, but this was no Mardi Gras – there were many, many unmasked, as pretty as you please, standing or sitting less than a good sneeze’s distance one from the other. Were these people crazy? Or was I?

A little of both, perhaps. I will get real here: it warmed my heart to see Paris limping back to life. I miss the cafes, the uber-expensive dress shops, the galleries, the life, by God, that flows over the streets every day. Yet I am all informed, too, about second waves, about the way the Spanish Influenza’s second coming, when it got serious, killed ten times more people than its rehearsal wave.

What is time? What is our time? What is personal time? Questions that have lept out of philosophy class and into our laps, be we working class or bougie, this Corona-period. Let’s end on the gothic observation of Virilio, who might be right:
“Duration (durée), all true duration, may have become by the fact of the acceleration of realism an everyday illusion, an absence of duration or more exactly, the duration of the absence which no longer allows us to grasp what is there, no those things that are still there to the advantage of the intempestive characer of what happens ex abrupto, of the Accident that from now on out replaces all events.”
Virilio wrote this at the beginning of the great economic crack-up of 2008. Seems less heated now – seems like pretty much a standard description of the impression we all have of our “time”. Put the 666 on my forehead and test and trace: I'm in!

Saturday, May 16, 2020

War and Taxes: Marx plus Pynchon

Marx, in the Grundrisse, makes an interesting remark about war:

War was developmentally prior to peace. The way, through war and armies, etc., certain economic relationships, such as wage labor, machinery etc. are developed earlier than in bourgeois society, Even the relationships of productivity and commerce are particularly visible in the army.
Still, Marx clung to the bourgeois imagining of war as something that is not itself a system: “War is self evidently to be understood as though it were immediately economically the same as though the nation through a part of its capital into the water.”

In other words, Marx ultimately sees war as non-productive – even as he sees that it can be developmentally prior to peace. In his list of war’s innovations, one notices that he does not include credit and taxation. As is well known, Marx did not have a developed sense of credit, which he saw as parasitic on productivity. It is, and it isn’t. A parasitic relationship is not necessarily a subordinate one, after all.

Thomas Pynchon, in the novel Gravity’s Rainbow, has a more acute sense of war as a system. He doesn’t, of course, develop this sense as a “theory”, but it becomes a strong narrative thread in Slothrop’s peregrination through war ravaged Europe.
What was happening on the American home front in World War II has been seen through many lenses: the greatest generation unity of the country, the enormous burst in productivity, the end of the Depression. But the lens that might be most interesting to us right now is that WWII marked a decisive change in the tax structure, which has had an enormous bearing on the peculiar American structure of class feelings – that lack of solidarity and identity of the working class that has determined our politics.
In part, this is simply racism. In as much as the upper class in America has been and continues to be overwhelmingly white, the sentimental outbursts of racism are rarer there. This is why the press, when it looks around for racists, finds plenty wearing baseball caps and having trouble with spelling – and doesn’t look to the almost all white system of prep schools, the Ivy leagues, the boards of corporations, etc.
However, there are other roots of labor’s odd affection for its exploiters.

Which gets us to war and taxes. In WWI, Wilson’s government had a newly established tax system – the internal revenue. Internal revenue was designed as a class tax. Before you had to file a return, you had to make a certain amount of money, far above the average salary. In World War I, this changed – those families with incomes above 2,000 per year, for the first time, had to pay a tax. However, that only added about 3 million to the tax rolls – and eventually that figure rose to 6 million. The government really relied on its hikes on corporations and wealthy individuals. From 13 percent, the tax rate for those making above 2 million rose to 67 percent. Since the major source of federal income before that – the tariff – was, so to speak, in suspension, corporate taxes – billed as taxes on ‘excess war profits” – and borrowing made up the rest of the war expenditure.

The borrowing prevented the Republicans who came in after the war from immediately undoing the taxes on the wealthy.  Mellon, perhaps the most powerful Treasury secretary the U.S. ever had, didn’t really want to abolish the income tax, as the radicals in the Republican party did, and replace it with a sales tax. Rather, he saw the advantages of this kind of revenue, and the advantages that came with tax loopholes – a tool used ever since to nourish one or another wealthy interest.
It was WWII that marked the true transition in the tax regime, however. The income tax remained a “class tax” up to the 40s. The masses didn’t generally pay any income taxes. As Sarah Kreps points out in Taxing War, “At the beginning of World War II, for example, only 3.9 million Americans were paying taxes, compared to 43 million by the end of the war. Income generated through taxes had gone from $2.2 billion in 1939 to $35.1 billion by 1945.2 The fiscal sacrifice was enormous, and despite these demands for revenue, public support remained high throughout the war—as did the belief that the system of taxation was appropriate, with individuals stating overwhelmingly that their tax levels were fair.”

In the sixties, leftist critics of the New Deal attacked it as a means to preserve an inherently unequal socio-economic capitalist system. Since the Reagan years, though, the critique has generally vanished. It is now viewed as a gold standard even by lefties. Yet the sixties critics were accurate: the creation of the mass tax turned out to be a great class dissolvent. Both the wealthy and the worker were paying taxes, and sooner or later the wealthy would figure out that a tool had been given to them: that the cry of being taxed too much would echo among the mass of taxpayers, who indeed, one could argue, were being taxed too much, especially in relation to the services provided for them by the government – which, at the same time, were being chipped away by political groups generally working in the service of capital.

Kreps points out that American wars – and pick the year for the last sixty to one hundred years when America wasn’t waging war – used to fall within the liberal framework that claimed that wars were a sacrifice – much like Marx speaking of the nation “throwing” its capital into the water. However, it is not clear that this has ever been so. There is a school – which again was stronger in the sixties – that pointed out the predatory nature of America’s wars. These wars, in short, created the vast geopolitical entity of the United States, with all the resources that went with it. One could say, as well, that the wars undertaken or supported by America since and including World War II have created a world-system on American terms that has been enormously profitable for the American economy. In fact, this perception has long been abroad in American culture: under the official rhetoric about the “sacrifice” of war, there is another that sees war as a solution to economic problems: what we need is a war.

Kreps is right, I think, to see the shift in the way America does war as a symptom of the decline of democracy as an ethos and ideal in the American republic. Not only has conscription gone, allowing American leaders to use their volunteer troops as monarchs used theirs, without fearing any radical public complaint, but the wars are also put on the ticket – taxes are not raised, but even lowered as wars are fought and the war industry grotesquely inflated. Krebs view of democracy is that it requires a certain Pavlovian mechanism – the administration of pain by the governing class should create a response by the governed class. When the pain is anaesthetized, the governing class has a non-democratic leeway, and the governed class feels cheated and baffled.
The governed class is just Slopthrop magnified. Something terrible happened to the child, and the man feels a strange hardon whenever his ESP picks up the presence, or the future presence, of a missile. Pynchon plus Marx: our guide to the present disorder.

Friday, May 15, 2020

x men and america

So I saw an X man movie with Adam. X men: the something something something. It is the one where some group finds a “cure” for the mutants. And Dr. Nematode (I know, not his real name. I joke!) leads a mutant revolt against these here States. Meanwhile, the core of the plot is classic: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy kills girl for her own good. Myth, quoi! Wolverine falls for Rebecca, who conceals two souls within her breast, one of whom is some monster who not only wants to fuck – thus seducing Wolverine – but also doesn’t respect anything. For instance, she psychokinetically destroys a house that, from the look of it, would easily go for 2 million in the hot L.A. real estate market. And incidentally kills kindly Captain Picard, who in this movie is Doctor something or other, the Gandhi of the mutants. Then this Rebecca chick teams up with Captain Nematode and they attack Big Pharma island, costing beaucoup in FX, and then she gets mad, her monster is unleashed, she atomizes a whole army, and Wolverine has to use all his strength to approach her for one more kiss and then stabs her to death in the stomach. Happy ending!
Like most high concept (that is, brilliantly dumb) super hero flicks, the allegory of a “cure” for mutants is meant as clickbait for film critics, i.e. anyone with a Twitter account. Thus, instead of discussing bang bang, which, though fun to watch, is not the kind of thing that sustains controversy, one can discuss, say, the “cure” for same sex desire, or whatever. However, the allegory is pretty clumsy in this one. The premise is that mutants are civil beings, i.e. they have rights. But since the mutants kill each other and wreck property with abandon, and yet seem to face no handcuffs, lawyers, or trials, they are really being treated as political subjects and superheros. Of course, this in a way is more realistic to the way things are in the states, where the superhero class – the upper five percent – has to do something extremely nasty to even get to the arrest stage, and, like Jeffrey Epstein, are jailed, if at all, under remarkably mild conditions. Meanwhile, justice for the peon class in America goes like this: arrest, guilty plea, punishment. Something like 95 percent of the arrested don’t face any goddamn trial in the normal sense – that is, where there’s a fucking jury. That would completely overwhelm the system. In the land of the free, we’ve overcome this problem through the clever use of incentives: those who dare to ask for a trial will be found guilty anyway, but their sentence will punish them for having the audacity to ask for a trial. A perfect system! It gets rid of the whole “trial” ethos at one swoop, so we can jail our less successful contingent without spending an inordinate amount of time handwringing about it.
However, Hollywood and tv still love the trial, because the trial is drama. And so over the practical everyday authoritarianism of American life (worse, of course, on every level if you are an African-American) they have woven a pleasant picture of the law working like it did in the wet dream of the writers of the Constitution (giving a bit too much credit here to the writers of the Constitution, but work with me here).
Occasionally, reality gives fantasy a break and you have something like the Weinstein trial, where a 1 percenter, after a mere thirty year streak of rape, is actually sentenced to prison. Building on this thin wedge, I think the superhero paradigm should try out the trial. Wolverine, for instance – what if the cops actually took him in for murdering Rebecca (or whatever her name was). This would be an excellent high concept premise! You’d get two myths (the myth of justice in America and the classical myth that you gotta kill the chick you love if she’s such a slut that she fucks you) for the price of one.
Marvel universemakers, DC universemakers – try this out!

Thursday, May 14, 2020


The patsy in his lonely fabuloso
builds a home out of a homecoming,
his lifeline out of a lifelong nostalgia.

Later, out and about in the top-feeder city
holding a crumpled brown sack full
of bread crumbs, he finds the usual park bench.

They always find him, wingbursts, the convention
Of their dull gray and street ragged bodies
Juddering heads, automaton legwork, injuries

- b-but, but loved, these dead eyed bottom feeders
as though their back ally flights foretold
the shamanic instant beyond his coil.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020


In his book, Bad Medicine, David Wootton makes an interesting remark about the symbolism of the stethoscope. It was invented in 1816 by René Laennec out of a problem in gender politics: the norm for female patients of the all male doctor fraternity was to be examined with their clothes on. Thus, the doctor could not lay his head against the chest of the patient and listen to the sound of what was going on inside. Laennec was concerned with phthisis, a nosological category that has now been subsumed as tuberculosis. The stethoscope was a true advance: doctors became much better at diagnosing phthisis. But therein lies the historical burden of Wootton’s book:
“Phthisis no longer exists as a disease: we now call it tuberculosis because we think of it as an infectious
disease caused by a specific micro-organism. The same sounds in a stethoscope that would once have led to a diagnosis of phthisis now leads to tests to confirm tuberculosis. But there is an important difference between our diagnosis of tuberculosis and Laennec’s diagnosis of phthisis: we can cure tuberculosis (most of the time), while his patients died of phthisis––he died of it himself. Until 1865 (when
Lister introduced antiseptic surgery) virtually all medical progress was of this sort. It enabled doctors to get better and better at prognosis, at predicting who would die, but it made no difference at all to
therapeutics. It was a progress in science but not in technology.”
The gap between the ability to diagnose and the ability to cure, or even to understand the cause of a disease, or its etiology, is easy to forget. I often edit articles about medicine, or public health, in the pre-twentieth century period. Some of these articles concern the medical culture of native peoples. And even with the best anti-colonialist will in the world, often the authors simply assume that there is a contrast between a rational and curative Western medicine and a ritualistic and non-curative folk medicine. In fact, folk medicine was medicine up into the twentieth century, and often continues to be today.
The older regime of treating a disease for which there was no certain cure has been much studied, and, contrary to all the bullshit about building up "herd immunity" (by letting the herd be culled of its weak members) was highly successful by stopping infection. To take tuberculosis, one of the great scourges of the 19th century, as an example - a classical example - we assume that this scourge was defeated by streptomycin, one of the miracle drugs of the 50s. But as was pointed out long ago by Rene Dubos, who was a major player with the Rockefeller foundation in finding a cure for tuberculosis, the decline in the mortality from tuberculosis long preceded the cure. Dubos was a pioneer of the ecological school of medical history - recognizing the vast importance of infrastructural factors in the recent surge in the health and wellbeing of human beings. Tuberculosis, in the nineteenth century in the U.S., was responsible for a fourth of all deaths. By 1940 it had plummeted to a 20th of all deaths. A large share of the increase in longevity in the 20th century was due to the decline of tuberculosis. Some doctors estimated that a third of the deaths of the middle age cohort in Europe in the 19th century were tuberculosis related.
If the same anti-virtue ethos was in place in the nineteenth century, instead of public money being spent on sewage systems, the government would have encouraged each individual to dispose of his or her sewage - although the "progressive" 19th century version of the neoliberal would have encouraged safety through a tax break of some kind. The late twentieth and early 21st century witnessed a shocking dectline in the public health structures of most of the "advanced" Western economies. And this is what we get.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

the end of virtue

In the eighteenth century, certain ‘total concepts” were believed by the philosophers – for instance, that the republic as a political form depended on virtue as the glue that bound the populace together. As Catherine Puigelier has pointed out, the Enlightenment consensus was that the whole discussion of whether man was born good or bad was falsely constructed: virtue was always and everywhere a product of sociability, of the social. Although – me here, not Puigelier -  it was not just one of many products: the social cannot exist without virtue. The social contract only held, only made sense, if there was an ethos of virtue that enforced contracts – not with violence, but with reasoned agreement.  In this sense, it is what might be called an emergent property.
Voltaire in his Philosophical dictionary – and don’t we need a new translation of the whole unabridged thing? And isn’t this a case for the NYRB classics publisher? – mocks the notion of a sovereign good, of a ultimate state towards which humanity, or the individual, strives.
Le souverain bien en ce monde ne pourrait-il pas être regardé comme souverainement chimérique ? Les philosophes grecs discutèrent longuement à leur ordinaire cette question. Ne vous imaginez-vous pas, mon cher lecteur, voir des mendiants qui raisonnent sur la pierre philosophale ?
Le souverain bien ! quel mot ! autant aurait-il valu demander ce que c’est que le souverain bleu, ou le souverain ragoût, le souverain marcher, le souverain lire, etc.

[Shouldn’t we regard the sovereign good in this world as a sovereign chimera? The Greek philosophers, as was their habit, chewed on this question at length. My dear reader, can’t you see them as beggars arguing about the philosopher’s stone?
What a phrase: sovereign good! You could as well ask what is the sovereign blue, or the sovereign stew, the sovereign walk, the sovereign read, etc.]

Voltaire was a “flat” thinker – he did not ask himself whether the destruction of the hierarchical structure of the good was diagnostic of something intrinsic to the good or intrinsic to the social construction of the good – which aren’t necessarily identical. But the job of destruction did make way for the idea of a republic of individuals. These individuals form a collective not by having no sense of good, but by pursuing the good as they see fit, within the framework of public virtue. Though the abstract hierarchy of good is as absurd as an abstract hierarchy of stew, the real, instantiated good to which the state is responsible still endures, creating a hierarchy that is founded not on the good itself, but on a variety of the good – the legitimation of the social order.
Now, fast forward 275 years. We are witnessing something like the end of virtue, republican virtue. The rightwing parties – in the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, Austria, Australia, etc. – are led by an overtly anti-virtue ethos. This, I think, distinguishes them from 20th century fascism, which was an extreme right manifestation of the republican ethos, interpreted through race and the adherence to a supreme – and supremely virtuous – ruler.
On twitter, I received a response to something I wrote by a Trump follower. Usually I just block that nonsense, but for some reason I didn’t this time, so we tweet debated, meaning we slung insults and instances at each other. I wrote, among other things, how degrading and stupid it was to have a national leader recommend injecting detergent. The response I thought was classic: if you think Trump wasn't trolling your side when he said that, you're out to lunch. Your side actually believed he was serious when he tweeted a video of himself being President until 2040.  
Fintan O’Toole coined the phrase LOLConservatism. This is what he meant. I can’t imagine one of Mussolini’s followers defending him by claiming he is just trolling the libs. That would be considered an insult to Mussolini. There’s been a disruption on the right that is still badly understood on the left, where you will sometimes hear the earnest question: well, what does the right propose to do about, say, pollution, or climate change, or whatever. The idea of Republican virtue, of a sense that the governing class is justified in as much as it is working for the good of society, has dissolved, here. As Margaret Thatcher said, there’s no such thing as society, thus bringing to a true dead end the dialectic between the social order and private rivalry that was once a vital conservative concern. If the state is bound by no sense of virtue, and the only demand made on it is to stop guaranteeing any benefit to the mass of the governed (under the guise of shrinking the state – which is of course a mask, as the state expands its support of Capital in ways that the “middle class prophets” of classical liberalism would never have imagined), then the state has essentially divorced itself from the old, republican ideal.
I am not a middle class prophet, and can’t imagine how the world without a republican ideal is going to work. I do know that world is here. Sad, isn’t it?