Limited, Inc.

“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, April 24, 2015

monsters

The sleep of reason isn’t the only thing that gives birth to monsters. Language does, too.
Last week, Adam and I were walking to the store when we passed by a big office building on Wiltshire. The building presented a big window to the street, through which one could see a very empty atrium. I’ve passed by this building hundreds of times without thinking much about it. Adam posed his standard question to me – what’s that, Daddy? I said it was an office building. He seemed a little disturbed that it looked empty, so I assured him that somebody worked there. He repeated my words. It amused me that he said somebody like it was somebody’s name.
The next day he mentioned somebody again, telling me that somebody is in his office. We were walking home. I said that somebody is in the car and somebody is in the house we passed too. Daddy. Funny daddy.
Little did I know that somebody seemed ominous to Adam. And his multiplication was a bit terrifying. Gradually,  I understood, but not before somebody had assumed terrible proportions. Now when it gets dark, Adam talks about somebody being in his office. This morning, as we walked out the door and went to the left – our standard route to Adam’s school – Adam broke into a run, and kept looking backwards.  I caught up with him, gave him the standard adult rap about don’t ever do that, and he told me that he’d seen somebody.

Somebody haunts us. So, actually, does Mr. Nobody, from the Goodnight Moon book. These monsters come straight out of our language, which has dreamt them up. I’m going to have to figure out how to ratchet down the fear of somebody.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

the island of laputa - competition 2

It is said that Chryssipus the Stoic held that there were, for all problems, true solutions. But he also held that at times, we can’t see them – and those times called for a morally disciplined silence. It is in this spirit he approached the paradox of the heap – the sorites. The paradox is as follows: if we construct a heap from seeds, say, we can, by adding seeds successively, reach a point where we might say that we have a heap, and identify that with the number of seeds we have used – say, 200. And yet, when we subtract one seed, we are disinclined to say that we no longer have a heap. Given that fact, we might play the game by claiming that we haven’t reached a heap no matter how many seeds we use in order to avoid identifying the heap with a certain number of seeds – but then, paradoxically, we will never achieve a heap. In fact, we don’t really seem to be able to quantify a thing like a heap; neither do we want to say that the heap is a quality when clearly it can be analyzed into its separate parts. To borrow a term from contemporary logic,  there is no “heapmaker” – so how can there be a heap? Chryssipus, according to Sextus Empiricus, recommended that “when the Sorites is being propounded one should, while the argument is proceeding, stop and suspend judgement to avoid falling into absurdity.”  Analytic philosophers, such as Mario Magnucci, who wrote a seminal paper on the stoic response to the sorites, have attempted to incorporate Chryssipus’s response into standard Western logic. To me, the stoic response is closer to the notion of Mu in Rinzai Zen. The famous Mu Koan goes like this: a disciple of Zhaozhou, a Chinese zen master, asked him if a dog has the Buddha nature. Zhaouzhou answered Wu – Mu in Japanese – which means no, empty, vacant, and – it is said – applies in different ways to the question: that there is no dog, that there is no Buddha nature, that the dog does not have Buddha nature, and so on. In other words, the answer is meant to break the mental habit of thinking that the way of assembly – where distinct parts are put together – and the way of disassembly, where distinct parts are separated, are grounded in the real. Indetermination is neither a fact of the real nor not a fact of the real.
Too often, disputes among historians about the rise or decline of some historical property fail to acknowledge that rise and fall are sorites. Hence, arguments become very vicious about what the risemakers or the fall-makers are, and when they occur. Accepting that historical narratives have a sorites paradox at their center helps us clarify the half-fictitious natur e of the business. Even if one doesn’t stop and fall silent, like Chryssipus, one has to accept the possibility that finally, withdrawal is the correct response.
Which is an elaborate detour on the way to approaching the vexed question of the “rise of capitalism” in Western Europe, which basically means England and France, in the eighteenth century.  Of course,Great Britain and France were mainly agricultural –as was the US until 1900. But the question is not just about the rise of industrialism, but the monetarization of agriculture and the emergence of a market system – and the emergence of a “spirit” of capitalism.
That spirit has been poked and probed since, well, the eighteenth century itself. One aspect of it seems to me to be a little less sore from the prodding: the re-evaluation of competition.
 In James Steaurt’s  Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy (1767), there’s an interesting footnote that briefly outlines a counterfactual history stemming from the hypothesis that the Fall neveer took place.
Hence I conclude, that had the fall never taken place,the pursuits of man would have been totally different from
what they are at present. Mayl be allowed to suppose, that in such a happy state, he might  have been endowed with a faculty of transmitting his most complex ideas with the same  perspicuity  with which we now transmit those relating to geometry, numbers, colors, &c. From this I infer, there would have been no difference of sentiment, no dispute, no competition between man and man. The progress in acquiring  useful knowledge, the pleasure of communicating discoveries , would alone have provided a fond of happiness, as  inexhaustible as knowledge itself.”
The joke in making paradise into  the Isle of Laputa was no longer funny fifty years after Swift to the moral philosophers of the Scottish school – nor, in fact,  to the whole tribe of improving theoreticians who Burke attacks in the Reflections.
More on this later.

  

Friday, April 17, 2015

an analysis of competition for amateurs

There is a story told about the psychoanalyst DW Winnicott. He was talking to a meeting of clergy. One of them asked him how they should decide whether someone who comes to them for counseling should be sent to a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst. Winnicott memorably said: “If a person comes and talks to you and, listening to him, you feel he is boring you, then he is sick, and needs psychiatric treatment. But if he sustains your interest, no matter how grave his distress or conflict, then you can help him alright.”


I think Winnicott’s criteria for separating sick and problematic characters can be extended to what the essayist’s “expertise” is. If, as an essayist, you are dealing with a topic that is boring you, probably it needs to be sent to a specialist. But if it is problematic and fascinating, then you can deal with it.
Lately, the topic that I have been itching to write a mini-essay on is “competition”. Competition is one of the colorless words of our time. To be colorless is to be over-understood – so understood that one loses touch with what, exactly, the sense of the concept is.
For instance: the other day I was reading, in the New York Times, a story about “terror birds” – massive birds that lived tens of millions of years ago and that, when laying down and dying, as a favor to paleontologists of the future, left gorgeously articulated fossil remains. As in any story about a now extinct species, the coda has to involve how they became extinct.  In this case, as the story had emphasized how the terror birds prayed on the incipient mammalia, all rodent like beasts, at the time, we had a vague stake in their existence and disappearance.

The fossil adds to the diversity of terror birds and raises new questions as to why they went extinct two and a half million years ago.
Since the species varied in size and weight, terror birds maynot have died out because of an inability to compete with placental mammals, assome researchers have suggested, Dr. Degrange said.


Dr. Degrange has my respect for rejecting the colorless explanation that would have satisfied the NYT mindset, which is all about competition being good for everything, the very vehicle of progress.
That sentence did make me think that it might be nice to see how competition crept into the worlds of natural history and moral philosophy (economics division). I am going to write a bit more about this.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Spitting out the Bittner taste in my mouth



During his lifetime, Gunter Grass opposed the Vietnam war, the emplacement of Cruise Missiles on German soil, the two Gulf Wars and the triumphalist mood after the fall of the Wall. Naturally, this is the type of character that the NYT editorial board collectively takes dumps upon. Now that he is dead and the obituaries pour in, it is a wonderful time for “contrarianism”, so they publish an incredibly boobish op ed piece by a German they’ve been favoring lately with deadtree space, a cat named Jochen Bittner,  an editor for Die Zeit who was last seen in the NYT pontificating like Charles Krauthammer that the West has to seize the Moral Leadership of blah blah blah.
So he’s the NYT gunman on the spot. Here’s a couple of unintentionally hilarious grafs about his Grass problem:

"I was able to pinpoint my frustration only when I met Mr. Grass in person. A couple of months ago he came from his home in Lübeck, on the Baltic coast, to visit my newspaper’s office in nearby Hamburg. The conference room was packed: Everyone — editors, assistants, interns — all crowded in to see this living legend. Although I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with mixed emotions about the man, the atmosphere was one of near complete adoration. It was the kind of secular worship that I expect no younger author will ever experience, even if he or she wins a Nobel.
Your generation has had it pretty easy, I wanted to blurt out. You grew big in times when strong ideology and determined judgment counted more than the hard work of examining what is actually going on around us. The way you saw the world counted more than the way it actually was. And there was always a lot of self in your righteousness….
...
I wanted to say all of this, in front of my enraptured colleagues. But I didn’t dare.”

So, we have Bittner, deciding that he represents his generation in Germany (although I’m pretty confident most of his generation has never heard of him) touting the old conservative rap about the “left wingers” but not daring to even speak up before his colleagues.
Luckily, though, he has a lot of that dissident courage in retrospect. So, the man who couldn’t disturb a confab with a famous author is more than willing to use the confession of that famous author that when he was 17, he was conscripted into the Waffen SS to say na na boo boo– and that is supposed to pop Grass’s moral bubble.
So what is the contrast here? It is a contrast of confessions, of Grass's and Bittner's. It is a contrast of unconsciousnesses. Are we supposed to think Bittner, under a regime that would put you in a concentration camp for writing anti-nazi grafitti in a bathroom, would have calmly told the Nazis to fuck off when they came for his counterfactual teen self in 1944? Well, of course he would. Like Mighty Mouse, he would give them the old one two and they'd fall back astonished. Then he'd leap over a few recently bombed buildings.

. Grass was a thoroughly Nazified teen, no doubt, and to my mind, this is one of the sources of his authenticity – he could see, unlike a rightwing critic like Joachim Fest that what was attractive about Naziism was also what was wrong with it - the whole ideology of strength, of toughness, of leadership, decisionmaking, contempt for relativism, absolute faith in what the established power thinks is right or wrong.. Fest  of course began the rant about Grass’s hypocrisy that is echoed in the Bittner piece, even though Fest himself had volunteered for the Wehrmacht, which he claimed was not responsible for any atrocities against Jews - at best, a delusive belief. At the time of Grass's confession, much was made about his  condemnation of Reagan's visit to Waffen S.S. graves. Pat Buchanan, for instance, had his word about it. The weaselish echo wends its way into Bittner's prose.

Bittner does represent one part of his generation – the upper class twits. When Fest wrote his bio of Hitler in 1973, what he was imagining was how nice it would have been if the Weimar leftists had been swept out with a little less anti-semitism - that is, if only Hitler had been Pinochet! It has long been a popular position among the twit set. Bittner is an opportunist of the first water, and I imagine a counterfactual 40 year old Bittner in 1944 he would have elbowed his way into some Deutsche think tank using the same networking methods he's so successfully employed in Merkel's Germany.   He’s a big product of the neo-con network,  EU section, with his positions with the German Marshall fund and his special relationship to Merkel’s Foreign Affairs office.  His embedness has been the subject of some fun in Germany, getting prominent play on the satirical show, Die Anstalt, which published his and his editoreit (Joffe)’s links with various think tank groups - and in Joffe's case, lobbyists. Of course, these two are prominent supporters of the American foreign policy line vis a vis Ukraine.   Bittner and Joffe sued, and lost the case – although the court gave two points to Bittner for one line in the broadcast. Anstalt seems to have been inspired by the wonderful French documentary, Les Nouveaux chiens de garde, which chopped up the purveyors of conventional wisdom in the media and showed their connection to various plutocrats and corporations.

Although the NYT considers itself an avenging God when it comes to those terrible left wing intellectuals in Europe, the Bittner piece seems to me to redound to Grass’s credit. If he repulsed such repulsive critters as Bittner, he must have been doing something right.

Friday, April 10, 2015

the interview experience

Robert Musil opens his interview-profile of the essayist Alfred Polgar with a joke:

One day I said to myself that the interview is the artform of our time. Because the mega-capitalistic beauty of the interview is tha the interviewee does the whole mentla labor, and gets nothing for it, while the interviewer does actually nothing, but pockets the honorarium.
The joke contains an important truth. Interviews are definitely built around a peculiar economic arrangement. Most of the time, we read the interview for the interviewee, not the interviewer, who is nevertheless given the byline (as Musil was for the Berlin paper for which he interviewed Polgar) and the fee. Mostly, the attraction is the better known interviewee – Musil was less known, in 1922, than Polgar, who was as well known in his day as, say, Roger Ebert is in ours.
The joke does not contain the whole truth however. Musil walks it back a bit in the next paragraph:
Other than this it is charming that one may, in an interview, ask a person questions in a manner that would otherwise be offensive. One must naturally get out of the moronic “how do you like our city” and “did you sleep well on the trip” . One must terrify the interviewee, shake him up; for one must successfully put questions, in the name of cultural duty, for answers that of his own free will he would never surrender.”
This is the whole matter of the interviewers art. Or no: I say this having done more interviews in my freelancing days than I can count, from the high – for instance, William T.Vollman – to the low, as for instance some mid level clerk in charge of the erotic comics section at the local comix store. I had no previous training when I was thrown into this work; I very quickly learned that what you read is not eactly what the interviewee said.
But more of that in a moment…
Just as Musil suggests, moronic questions are only good for softening the victim up. Or at least that is how it should be. In fact, as any faithful reader of the NYT Magazine knows, the moronic level is often the alpha and omega of the interview. For instance, there is the old standby, where do you work? This question is always being thrown at writers, for reasons that puzzle me. Would we ask an accountant where they account?  Yet, it is an inexpungable bug in the system of which interviews form a part. The place a writer writes has some strange attraction, it has become a tourist destination of the mind, yet I don’t know what the there is there. What does the question even mean, given that it is a rare writer whose head doesn’t suddenly fill, on the most unexpected occasions, with solutions to plot problems, phrases, rhymes, and the whole business.
However, while Musil says some excellent things about interviewng in this essay – I must get back to a few of them at some other time – he doesn’t say, no interviewer ever says, that there is a gap between transcript and copy. Transcript isn’t copy. After the interview is done and the tape recorder is turned off or the writing peters out in your notebook, where your unintelligible scribble has been lunging through the pages like a troop of drunken monkeys, you have to then take it all home, or to your office, or whereever, and make sense of it.
Sense. Oh.
Americans in particular are not raised in the kind of conversational milieu that made interviews, that 18th century invention, possible. There’s a certain inabilty to form obiter dicta spontaneously as the ocassion arises. In the 18th and 19th century, all these figures, these Goethes and Samuel Johnsons, cultivated the pronunciamento like little dictators. It was as if a part of their brain snapped on and they could give a speech. This cerebral state hardly exists in the general population. Instead, there is a constant segue between half starts, riffs that deadend, rap that becomes air time, and the like. And – one hopes – in the midst of this, one will encounter some beautiful conclusive sentence, the kind that the publishers love, because their ;publication designers (whose firm belief is that nobody reads any more) can use it as a ribbon in bold, large type scrolling across a dense, three or four column page. Unfortunately, most of these glorous sentences wilt into mere platitudes once they are awarded big font size.
I love American speech; it is the glory of the country. It just doesn’t conform to the old strictures of the interview.
Thus, the relationship of the transcript to the interviewer becomes something like the relationship between a DJ and a stack of tunes. The DJ has to find, among the disparate sounds and songs, some common threads, as well as abrupt changes. He has to create a consistent soundscape.
Similarly, the interviewer has to recontext the context. Usually, for nstance, that beautiful sentence is nested in among a bunch of banalities. It needs to be lifted out. Other sentences need to be pared back, supplied with the verb that was dropped in the moment, pruned of the repetitions. The question answer format has to be straightened out too, as many interviewees tend to give the most satisfactory answer to question 1 when answering question 3.
In a way, Musil is right. The end product is the kind of  simulacra mega-capitalism thrives on. The interviewee, in my experience, is often delighted with one’s work.
Here’s an exercise: watch a tv talk show interview of Youtube, and try to take notes on the Q. and A. Then turn it off, read the notes and see if they make sense. Then make them make sense. Then watch the interview again.

Voila: the interview experience.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Johnson again, or getting near what I set out to say, but not saying it

For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

There’s a famous story about the first time William Hogarth met Samuel Johnson. It happened when Hogarth was visiting Samuel Richardson:

“While he [Hogarth]  was talking, he perceived a person standing at a window in the room, shaking his head and rolling himself about in a strange ridiculous manner. He concluded that he was an idiot whom his relations had put under the care of Mr Richardson, as a very good man. To his great surprise, however, this figure stalked forwards to where he and Mr Richardson were sitting, and … displayed such a power of eloquence, that Hogarth looked at him with astonishment, and actually imagined that this idiot had been at the moment inspired."
Hogarth’s testimony to the strangeness of Johnson’s presence, even to the extreme of thinking, at first impression, that he was a congenital idiot, is not idiosyncratic.  Famously, Johnson ate behind a screen at his friend Mrs. Thrale’s house, due to the fact that he was a notoriously sloppy eater. This was not due to some viciousness of his upbringing, but to some deep malfunction of his physiology. Johnson seems to have been afflicted with something ‘daemonic”, which has been variously diagnosed as Tourette’s syndrome, or epilepsy, or whatever it is that scrofula was – since scrofula was the diagnosis of his age. He was a man of tics, a man who could never totally trust his own gestures. For this reason  I like to thinki of him in terms of the daemon: and this is all the more appropriate in that he could only have lived in the eighteenth century, with its interpenetration of Enlightenment sensualism and Mesmeric mystery. It was an age has  features that only come out when looked at through the daemon. It was in a rented room in a house in Johnson’s London that Swedenburg, a man Johnson never met, I think, also met his daemon, or his angels, who threw him bodily around the place – and a working class artist, William Blake, met his there too. Curious how Johnson certainly seems on the other end of the spectrum from Blake, and yet it is easy to imagine Johnson having the kind of tolerance for Blake that he had for Christopher Smart.
Johnson’s prose is famously mannered – like Gibbon, Johnson never met a contrast that he didn’t want to set in prose marble. However, his conversation, as recoreded by Boswell and others, was a more darting affair. And yet, his acquaintances recognized his voice in the Rambler. Those wonderfully balanced sets, which seem so attached to pen and paper rather than tongue and gesture, were , apparently, rooted in the latter – it is as though the “Sir” which Boswell’s Johnson so copiously initials his responses and speeches, that term of address  in which respect and attack are mingled , seems to dance, unsounded, over those paragraphs that Hazlitt, later, would find all too balanced, and all too indiscriminating as between occasions for high style and occasions for low notice:
“We can no more distinguish the most familiar objects in his descriptions of them, than we can a well known face under a huge  painted mask. The structure of sentences, which was his own invention, and which has been generally imitated since his time, is a species of rhyming in prose, where one clause answers to another in measure and quantity, like the tagging of syllables at the end of a verse. The close of a period follows as mechanically as the oscillation of a pendulum, the sense  is balanced with the sound; eacch sentence, revolving round its centre of gravity, is contained with itself like a couplet, and each paragraph forms itself into a stanza.”
Yet Hazlitt is, like everybody else, enchanted by Boswell’s Johnson, and makes a distinction between the writer and the speaker. The latter spoke as though he had cast off fear, while the former wrote as if any errant sound would plunge him into the abyss.
Yet we have the testimony of his friends that The Rambler did sound like Johnson. His voice was in it. Perhaps Hazlitt was showing his own dread of the grotesque when he compared the writing to a huge painted mask – exaggeration, the wild growth of some  familiar thing, is one of the tropes of the gothic, and of horror. And though Hazlitt is trying to show that the famously juggled style is, in the end, as boring as a metronome, his comparisons betray perhaps another more sweeping and painful anxiety, in which the problem is not that the prose is forgetable, but that it sets up an irritating vibration in the head, which is catching – one’s own voice can be infected by this sound.
Authority is the sign of the daemonic in traditional society. In Matthew, Jesus is said to speak with exousia – authority – while Paul uses the word in a curious way when he writes that the headcovering of women in the temple is there exousia – their authority to preach. Authority is evidently power, but not any kind of power. To know that of which one speaks is a kind of power, the kind granted to any classroom lecturer whose prepared his or her notes. That is the power of the scribe. Cultic authority is something of which one can be sensible – it can prickle the hair on the back of your neck – without one knowing entirely what is in back of it. Socrates’ daemon was wholly negative – it closed down avenues of thought and discourse.This is not necessarily because they were unethical or illogical.  In Plutarch’s dialogue about the daemon, the participants arrive at no clear notion of what it was – whether it was a sense for omens or whether it was a voice. Surely, however, Socrates felt it was an authority.
This, to my mind, binds together the talk in Boswell’s Johnson with the great essays.  Contra Hazlitt, the Tatler and Spectator of Addison and Steele, which he admired so much, have become merely dim references to fill out a tale about the coming of public opinion in early modern Europe – a terrible fate, that, to be a dog’s dinner for Habermas.  But Johnson’s essays grow more enigmatic. He does have a bulldog’s way of shakng a bone – and the bones he preferred were the standard tropes of the moraliste – self love, hypocrisy, vanity, folly, etc. But he had a strong sense that the drama that the moraliste made out of sentiments and vices was a puppet show, and that the real broke down the puppets sooner or later, as one sounded the depths about what one knew to be true of oneself and others, which means sounding the depths of what one doesn’t know about oneself and others. Where does this irrepresible ignorance, this internal illusion, come from?  It is Johnson’s constant theme; and a theme, if obsessed over with enough genius, becomes a form of authority, though it resolves itself in the indeterminacy of an enigma. God is a problem whose resolution is another problem, Novalis once wrote: and such problems all are lit with something divine, or daemonic.
This is the kind of thing that Johnson knows best. It is why he is the master of procrastination, that moment when knowledge confronts its essential helplessness before the fact that it transforms nothing, that it dissolves into a ghost if it isn’t the pawn of desire. He turns these moments into existential acts – acts of the highest futility.
“To act is far easier than to suffer; yet we everyday see the progress of life retarded by the vis inertia, the mere repugnance to motion, and find multitudes repining at the want of that which nothing but idleness hinders them from enjoying. The case of Tantalus, in the region of poetick punishment, was fomewhat to be pitied, because the fruits that hung about him retired from his hand ; but what tenderness can be claimed by those who, though perhaps they suffer the pains of Tantalus, will never lift their hands for their own relief ?”


  

Monday, March 30, 2015

samuel johnson, marcel mauss, and an old crone

Circumstances alter
definitions. Of course, not only circumstances impinge on the career of a definition; nor is it always clear where a circumstance ends and another begins. But – for instance –to argue about Samuel Johnson’s political beliefs in the idiom of our own era’s political terms is surely to risk obscuring what Johnson thought,  even if it does satisfy some desire to create a totemic line of thinkers neatly coming down to us. Which, talk about your enormous condescension!
Thus, though Johnson was obviously on the “right” during his time, and was even suspected of being a crypto Stuart supporter, his conservativism is obviously not ours. This comes out in his defense of hierarchy, or the “enormous pyramid of subordination”, as he darkly put it, in Rambler 145, clearly written in a spirit to counter the gathering ideology of utilitarianism that has since made every man his own alienator and reduces any person who thinks to quiet moments of despair. Johnson strikes a note that is surprisingly similar to a theme sounded in Marcel Mauss’s  Essai sur le don about exchange in “archaic” societies, where the gift and the spirit of power define the highest level of existence, while utility – and all questions pertaining to the useful – are put on a second, lower level.
“It is allowed that vocations and employmnets of least dignty are of the most apparent use; that the meanest artisan or manufacturer contributes more to the accommodation of life, than the profound scholar and argumentative theorist; and that the publick would suffer less present inconvenience from the banishment of philosophers than from the extinction of any common trade.” The terms with with Johnson begins clearly turn on an opposition between dignity and use, philosophy and trade, and the social hierarchy that backs this placing of upper and lower.
The Johnson that we know from Boswell is an established figure – but we know that the Johnson who, in his younger days, sometimes rambled at night for want of a place to sleep, was far from established. It takes a while for the reader to see that the sometimes elephantine prose of Johnson, his massiveness, is shot through with an undeniable whiff of the street. This essay, which could have taken off in a sort of rococo defense of the best and the brightest, instead encounters the street in the form of complaint against a society that doesn’t honor those who do the most to make it work – those who, as Adam Smith put it later (even as he was shifting the terms by which this society explained itself), did ‘productive labor.’ A complex phrase that haunted the political economy of the nineteenth century and was submerged in the twentieth, where it now exists as a kind of economic populism, a railing ghost. On the streets of London in the eghteenth century – as, indeed, on the streets of Santa Monica in 2015 – one finds both archaic forms of thinking and utopian criticism of the monsters of rationalisation that keep the majority down.
“Some have been so forcibly struck with this observation, that they have, in the first warmth of their discovery, thought it reasonable to alter the common distribution of dignity, and venturedd to condemn  mankind of universal ingratitude. For justice exacts, that those by whom we are most benefited should be most honored. And what labour can be more useful than that which procures to families and communties those necessaries which supply the wants of nature, or those conveniencies by which ease, security, and elegance are conferred?”
This idea is as alive today, on the street, as it was then. Who has not, when young at least, had conversations in which dream societies were proposed that would pay the garbageman more than the CEO? Indeed, I am not so far from that opinion myself. However, Johnson’s putting of the case already gives us a vision of what makes it unconfortable: the notion of elegance and the conveniences of life – of consumption. For the notion that the producer rates a higher dignity than the consumer – which, at its root, displaces the honor of the creator to its human prototypes – isn’t an a priori or universal truth. It does contain enough prejudicial force, however, that even in the vastly changed circumstances of capitalsm, the manager, the symbol pusher, still grasp for the role of producer, and throw the rest into the status of parasites – of, to use the immortal words of the private equity mogul, Romney himself, taker. Circumstances adjust definitions, but definitions store, like an archve, earlier circumstances.
Last week, I was drinking coffee at a Coffee Bean on Santa Monica Boulevard when I was approached by a beggar. This woman would have delighted Yeats. Her fingers were no longer filthy – they were lacquered with old filth, they had a sort of patina. She asked for a dollar, offered me a cig, sat down and began to sigh that she was bored. I’m sixty two, she said, and if I ever get rich, I’ll never be bored again. If you are poor, what do you got? Last night she didn’t have television,nor anybody to talk to, and she was bored. Which, she said, was a not unusual condition. I asked her whether she really thought that the rich were not ever bored, and she said that of course they weren’t. They could go out to movies every night! They could put a tv in every room, which she would do, if she was rich.
Now, this image of the rich is different, and yet not different, from the image of the rich as “producers”. After all, to go too far down the road that the rich produce is to embed the rich in a social function, having social benefits. It is hard to sidestep this, even if one presses the key of freedom over and over again – the current way of blocking the path to a discussion of ultimate social ends.
Johnson, more than me, would have recognized in the old woman’s talk something of what he thought, pragmatically, about dignity and ease. He has a wonderful way of moving from granting the workers – in his time, the agricultural worker – their place to putting that place in terms of the universe of higher values, the values of the sage and hero: [the workers] who, after all the consessions which truth may extort in favour of their occupation, must be content to fill up the lowest class of the commonwealth, to form the base of the pyramid of subordination, and lie buried in obscurity themselves, while they support all that is splendid, conspicuous, or exalted.”  
This is burial indeed. There is something gothic about thes phrases, as if Johnson were speaking of a zombie proletariat, an undead, a host of shadows busy supporting all that is splendid by doing all that is obscure.  Another whiff of the street: clearly, this distribution of places is profane. What is spendid, conspicuous or exalted is still of this world.
So far the street reaches. But Johnson’s Toryism has a reply prepared, contrasting intellectual labour to manual labour, to the disadvantage, both socially, in terms of remuneration, and morally, in terms of dignity, of the latter.
There is a twist, though. If dignity has any meaning, it can’t decay into mere contempt for the manual labor that supports us – us, the intellectual laborers:
Yet the refusal of statues and panegyricks to those who only employ their hands and feet in the service of mankind may be easily justified, I am far from intending to incite the petulance of pride, to justify the superciliousness of grandeur, or to intercept any part o that tenderness and benevolence which by the privilege of their common nature one man may claim from another.”
Ah, but now the café where I am writing this is getting crowded, and I want to go on for a few pages more. Maybe I will for tomorrow.