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

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

realism again

A wonderful thing about taking care of a 21 month old that might not look, on its face, like a wonderful thing, is the amount of app-less time the child’s care forces upon you.
Adam, at some point a month ago, changed his sleeping pattern. The 9 month old that got to bed at 7 p.m. and slept until 6 or 7 a.m. stopped working like a sleep machine. Now, it is around 8 p.m. that he gets to bed, and we have to stay with him until his breathing takes on a certain open mouthed regularity and the sound of the pacifier being tasted, taken out of the mouth, and reinserted ceases. While this activity, or hopefully, inactivity, is going on, we lay in the bed next to his crib. If we get up too soon, if we misjudge the breathing and the routine with the pacifier, if we try to escape from the nursery and get back to making dinner or watching a video prematurely, Adam turns on the waterworks.
Last Monday, this is just what I was doing. I didn’t have a light on or a tablet near by. I didn’t have a book or a piece of paper. The only app I had was the high window in Adam’s room, which frames a random portion of the sky. Although this portion of the sky does its best, no doubt, to be interesting, it isn’t, very. However, it does have one good trick: it turns, as though bruised, from a lighter blue to a clotted bluish purple in the hour between 8 and 8:30. And I, lying app-less on the bed with my head propped on the pillow, am in a good position to confirm the progress of the evening, the regress of the sunlight.
At this moment that I’ve been laboriously budging us towards in this fudge of words, I was not so much thinking of the physics of light but about realism. Again.  
To return to the thread I was pulling in a previous post about realism: I think that it is a mistake to connect realism to the real, as its distingushing characteristic. Rather, it is the real through the lens of the plausible, the credible. What constitutes the plausible or credible, in a society, is closely connected with the whole question of credit in every sense – economic, sociological, epistemological. To see realism as a narrative form – or rather, to see realism as making up the  kind of world in which narratives of plausibility exist – helps us to disconnect it from a defining opposition with, say, idealism, or romanticism.  
I’m concerned with fiction – so I thought, lying app-less. Adam was still not snoring.
But I am not saying that this is the only characteristic, am I? Connected to it is the fact that in these narratives, the world is “full”. The authorial voice can represent that fullness – as it does in Balzac or in Dickens. Or the authorial voice can be removed, and the world be given as full, as in Flaubert. It is no wonder that, so often, the pursuit that traverses these words is that of the borrower by the creditor. Credit is everywhere – or so it represents itself.
 Against this realism there is another world of narratives that are shot threw with the plausible. One could say that they are parasitic on realism in so far as the implausible effect requires some sense of the codes of realism. In these narratives, the assumption of the fullness of the world and the creditworthyness of the narrator suddenly snaps in the readers head, like a pencil.
For instance, the pencil which, having written the account of the barber who accidentally cut off the nose of one of his customers and found it in a roll baked by his wife, decides to get rid of the culpable probosis by taking it to a bridge and throwing it in the Neva – only to be wrapped in a fog both physical and textual:
“Ivan Yakovlevich turned pale.. But at this point everything became so completely enveloped in mist it is really impossible to say what happened afterwards…”
But at this point Adam’s breathing became unmistakeable, and what happened afterwards to my meditation on realism is really impossible to say, since I can’t remember it. It was time to make dinner.

Saturday, July 19, 2014


If things are in the saddle and ride mankind, as Emerson said, then let us imagine that things take a break every now and then and let words ride.  It is a 30 – 70 split, perhaps, is what I am getting at. This being so, it is foolish to argue with a word once it has established a claim on mankind.
In fact, this is just the kind of foolishness that philosophers – who at one time acknowledged themselves to be half-fool, although now they more often consider themselves to be half-scientist, a half and half creature that to me is still fool – like to engage in. Thus, I, in my half a fool robes, have always had a steady dislike for the word “real” and its court favorite, “realism”.
Here’s my reasoning. If real is meant to refer to the constitution of reality, then, in my opinion, it cant go picking out some bits of reality and discarding others. It must be wholly promiscuous, rather than half chaste. It must include magic, dreams, mirages and perceptions as well as carpenters crowns, heaps and pi. In other words, I take real to make the widest of ontological claims. However, in actual use, real has been turned into an ontological grift, setting itself up as something ontologicallly direct as opposed to all those soft ontologically indirect objects.  These, the realist wants to say, are dependent on  a subjective privilege that takes us out of the real and into the ideal, or the fanatastic.
Here we spot everyday dualism, doing its silent work. And everyday dualism has its advantages, or it wouldn’t hang around. But those advantages, which prime it for everyday distinctions, don’t prime it for metaphysical argument. There, it forgets its place. It rubs up against its own original quantitative claim – that reality is all, whereas non-reality is nothing – and  can only help itself out of its dilemma by silently inserting assumption into the discussion that , indeed, must be discussed before we can have the discussion.

In my opinion, realism is only plausibility writ large: it is a view on what is possible and important that gains its justification from a certain class background. Aristotle, in the Topics, speaks of endoxa – credible opinions – that are “accepted by everyone or by the majority or by the wise”. This is the filter through which reality becomes realism. The privileged point of view is given us by the class system in the regime in which that point of view is expressed. The reputable class bears various names, depending on the regime we are talking about, whether it is the middle class in America, or public opinion, or most scientists, or – more commonly – an implied everybody who counts that lurks behind a passive construction (“as is well known,” “as is generally agreed”, etc.). Realism’s affiliation with plausibility, rather than reality, is the secret of why the term seems so indeterminate, when you come to close quarters with it.  

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

swatting at the structural unemployment solution, again.

The Board of Editors of the Scientific American has annoyed me with their editorial comment in the current issue. It is one of those nattering naif kind of comment about how, gosh, machines are gobbling up jobs, and this explains rising inequality, rising unemployment, stagnatine wages and the rest of it. The quote a study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osbourne in which the authors predict that, in the coming decades, 47 percent of American jobs will be rendered obsolete by hyper hyper technology, everything from tax preparer to locomotive engineers. Significantly, there’s no mention of CEOs – even though that is a position which, using a few basic data search devices and some algorithms, could easily be folded into a couple of computers. But of course – NO! Not our sacred risktakin’ job creators! Not their jobs, Jesus…
Anyway, what irritates me is the blindness to like data. Because here’s the truth: capitalist private enterprise, as the Great Depression showed and as Marx reiterated back in the nineteenth century, cannot come even near to what the economists call full employment – that is, cannot employ 95 percent of the working population. States increased in size after the 1940s not only because states had more to do – particularly with social insurance and healthcare and education, o my! – but also because without the government hiring, we will be in a perpetual twilight of recession, even in a boom. If Government on the local, state and federal levels had continued to employ, over the recession, as they had before it, we would have long achieved the same level of unemployment as in 2005, Bush’s one boom year.

What I wrote about this in 2009 still stands today. Remember, whenever you hear economists or Janet Yellen or whoever speaking about employment, they are pulling a fast one – in fact, they have pulled it so fast they may believe it themselves. Full employment is not and cannot be achieved under modern capitalism by the capitalists. End of story:
 From 2009 ---

Here’s the truth. Since WWII, the government has gone from employing about 13 percent of the workforce to close to 17 percent. At the moment, according to the Bureau of Labor, there are around 22 million Americans employed by local, state and federal governments.

This means, at first glance, that the private sector employs on average about 82-84 percent of the work force. In actuality, given a very rough average of unemployment of 5 percent, the private sector ends up employing closer to 80 percent of the work force. 

At the moment, what has happened is that the private sector employs about 78 percent of the work force, as unemployment has gone up. Although government has held steady, no doubt in the next year, there will be layoffs from the government, too, This means that neither the private sector nor government will employ the percentage they do on average since WWII.

I put these figures out there so that one isn’t lulled into a discussion of whether the neo-classical models assume full employment or not. This is a nice, liberal discussion, but it overlooks the more fundamental lie, which is the assumption, which is swallowed like the sugar in liquid cough medicine, that the private sector somehow could efficiently employ 100 percent of the work force. It can’t. It has never been able to get past 85 percent in the post war period. There is a limit to the weight it can lift. We know what it is.

So the only argument about the stimulus is this: should the government absorb the extra unemployed or not? That is, should the government grow 3 or 4 percentage points?

The argument against this is not an efficiency argument. That is a stupid argument. The argument is, rather, that somehow, business can absorb the extra unemployed. Which means that the right is saying that, in the next year, the private sector can expand 4 or 5 percentage points to assume its usual standing in the economy.

Do you believe this? Does anybody? No tax break tax cut bullshit should take anybody’s eye off that ball. The question is: how can the private sphere possibly expand to absorb the 4 to 5 percent of the unemployed?

In reality, the right is saying, let the unemployed grow. And underneath that is the notion that if we can actually diminish the salary of the average worker, then businesses will be inclined to hire them. This, without the bullshit, is the right’s position. The recession is an opportunity for business to gain permanent tax cuts and hire people at reduced rates. 

Now, the only way this will actually bring business back up to its traditional 80 percent position is if the pie shrinks. 

I foresee that laying out the numbers in a way that everybody can understand them will not happen. Rather, we will have more endless droning about endlessly bogus functions from conservative economists, who will be countered with ever more esoteric models from liberal ones. The point will be to cover up the real situation, so that we will be fogged in, and deprived of the ability to use our own two eyes to see what the situation is, and decide for ourselves what we want done.”
What I wrote in 2009 has proved to be the case since. The Democrats have silently acceded to the agenda of shrinking the government, which means that the pressure to keep wages down in the private sector becomes much more powerful, and the surplus labor value thus released flows to the wealthy in a sweet, sweet stream of honey.
This will keep going and going and going. Given the Democratic policies that we have now, we are giving America’s children the chance to experience what it would have been like if the government hadn’t stepped in to stop the Great Depression.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

strike out against the culture of impunity!

When the military junta in Argentina folded in 1983, President Alfonsin came to power, and started proceedings against certain members of the military high command who had participated in the Dirty War, as well as the leaders of the Monteneros (those who survived) for kidnappings and murders. However, the trials affected only a few. In 1986, the full stop law was enacted, the limited suits to those that would be enacted within 60 days of its passage, all others to be rendered null, and the due obedience law, in 1987, which halted the trials that had passed the full stop law. Then, when Menem wasw elected in 1989, he began issuing mass pardons, mostly for the military but some of them for the Montenero leadership (which, it must be said, has always been suspected of actually being led by agent provacateur, notably in the case of the leader, Mario Firminich – see Martin Edwin Andersen’s Dossier secreto for details).
Collectively, Alfonsin’s decrees were known as the impunity laws. In this way, the State covered up for the almost thirty thousand murders committed by the military junta.
Against this coverup, a civil rights organisation began to hold Tribunals against Impunity in Buenos Aires in 1990, with the aim of revealing as many facts as possible and shaming the state.
I’ve been thinking about this vis-à-vis the United States. It seems to me that we have been living through the era of Impunity, here: from the horrors committed in the name of fighting terror to the invasion of Iraq through the Obama directed drone war; from the unwillingness of the Justice department and the SEC to reign in or jail anyone for the financial meltdown of 2008 to the widespread fraud by the banks in the paperwork they have submitted to courts concerning mortgages; from the abolition of jury trial in the case of suits for damages to corporations to the Supreme Court’s increasing willingness to lend cover to any plutocratic attempt to buy elections and change laws in their favor. On the cultural front, there is the impunity enjoyed by those in the media who have cheered along all these things, and who have never lost a dime for being not just wrong, but disastrously wrong; not just mistaken in their reporting or analysis, but being willing conduits of propaganda and lies.
And I’ve been thinking – wouldn’t it be nice if the occupy organizers did something on the Argentina model. With the masses of information made available by Snowden, with what what we know about the massive frauds in the financial sector, and finally, with what we can find out about the massive buying of the federal legislative and executive branches – the revolving door between officeholders and business, and the more secret doors that link the hiring of their relatives and associates – their clans – by the corporations they are supposedly regulating, it would make for, at least, entertainment. RFK in the sixties took a subcommittee to various locales in this country to investigate poverty. On similar lines, a tribunal against impunity could go to Cleveland and take testimony on the sack of that city in the 00s by mortgage lending bottom feeders – could go to Atlanta and show how laws against fraud were fundamentally abandoned by get rich quick state legislators – could go to New Orleans and show how few people have suffered for the negligence in Katrina – could go to Reston, Virginia, where the CIA is located, and show how the CIA systematically constructed and operated an  international network of torture sites. This is just the tip of the impunity iceberg, of course.

I had a dream… 

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Celebrating Slate Magazine always wrong coverage of the War on Terror for the last eleven years!

Crooked Timber periodically hosts a fest mocking Charles Krauthammer's promise, in 2003, to retract his beliefs if the US didn't find the WMD in Iraq. In that spirit, LI has long wanted to mock a buncha targets for their administrative asslicking and general stupidity in the great war bubble period between 9.11 (which, the press assured the American public, somehow proved that George Bush was a great president, perhaps the greatest) and Mission Achieved day May 1, 2003.

I keep coming back to Slate, the home of the always wrong contraro-belligerati, Christopher Hitchens - whose columns on Iraq can even now provide hours of sick humor - and such astute warhawk liberals as Jack Shafer. Shafer, somehow, sticks in my head because he took it upon himself to mock Johnny Apple, the NYT thumbsucker-reporter, for harboring any doubts about our great and glorious victories in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Here's a quote from a Shafer piece that, word for word, could be used as a sort of standard unit to measure stupid. An SUS, if you will.

From March 27, 2003, Shafer begins with what he obviously thinks is a delicious quote from his low hanging liberal fruit. Shafer sizes him up with the standard Slate smarm, then delivers what he obviously thinks is a knockout blow:

Like other leaders facing larger, technologically superior forces, [Saddam] has found ways to improvise and to take advantage of the fact that the fighting is taking place on his home ground. He is waging a campaign of harassment and delay. It is not likely to change the outcome of the war, but it will prolong the fighting, make it more costly for his adversaries and profoundly affect the way it is seen in other Arab countries and around the world. [Quote from Apple]
Apple doesn't use the word "quagmire" to describe the allied effort as he did on Oct. 31, 2001, during the early, shaky days of the Afghanistan campaign. (See "Military Quagmire Remembered: Afghanistan as Vietnam.") But the gist of his Afghanistan piece and today's Iraq piece is the same. The United States has bitten off more than it can chew; the allied war effort is underpowered; we've underestimated the enemy—again!; air power is overrated; and guerrillas can do U.S. forces great damage as they did in Vietnam.
Apple's fear that dropping bombs on civilians wouldn't "win Afghan 'hearts and minds' " and that the country would prove ungovernable even if the United States won turned out to be unfounded. Two weeks after his comparison of Afghanistan to Vietnam, the allies liberated Kabul, and 16 months later the place is at least as governable as San Francisco."
This, this is the guiding spirit of Slate, its faith. For a long time, slate has been a sort of goldplated SUS for the media. Shafer, of course, is the stupidest of the stupid, meaning he is enamored of his own brightness and credentials, and is the sort of fellow you want to invite to a talk show.

But there are many Shafers out there - it was his talent to wrap up, in one heaping helping, the CW of the press, which collaborated as much as they could in making the Middle East and Central Asia a place of dizzying and endless violence.

Ha ha! That stupid liberal, comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam. And in a way its true: we've been in Afghanistan much longer than we were in Vietnam.

Slate- were glib analysis based on shaky factoids goes to die.

the second week and Rousseau

The second week. 
Every morning Adam boils over when we finally arrive at the school, and clings to me – but with less and less conviction and fear. Today, I got him to his classroom through the kitchen area. There is a sliding door between the two areas, so as soon as Miss Britney swept him up, I closed the door, stocked his box in the refrigerator, and snuck around to see how he’d do through the windows of the class, which face the hall. In Miss Britney’s arms he was wearing an air of contentment, and she brought him to his little scoop seat and sat him down with the rest of the kids. As she was doing so, some child yelled, “Adam!”
A friend!
One of the reasons we are breaking Adam’s heart each morning and exposing him to the discontents of civilization, such as they are, in a pre-school is that he has only been around adults. He is, after all, an only child. He’s a sociable one too – it doesn’t surprise me that he is soon calm and contented in his teacher’s arms, because he seems to have a knack for adults. What he needs, of course, is to pull away from his parents into childhood – the ‘hood of other children. It is an odd bond, this between parent and child – it grows by splitting.
Rousseau, in the Discourse on Inequality, writes:

“Were we to suppose savage man as trained in the art of thinking as philosophers make him; were we, like them, to suppose him a very philosopher capable of investigating the sublimest truths, and of forming, by highly abstract chains of reasoning, maxims of reason and justice, deduced from the love of order in general, or the known will of his Creator; in a word, were we to suppose him as intelligent and enlightened, as he must have been, and is in fact found to have been, dull and stupid, what advantage would accrue to the species, from all such metaphysics, which could not be communicated by one to another, but must end with him who made them?

It isn’t true that everything Adam thinks ends with himself, since he loves to babble to us, have us chase him, have us change the video (taking my hand and pressing it on the tablet’s screen to indicate we’ve had enough of this episode of Petit Ours Brun), hug us, laugh with us, disagree with us about his clothes, tell us in no uncertain terms that it is not bedtime, etc.  This is not civilization and its discontents, however. Adam is perhaps not old enough yet for the child who yelled Adam! But it is a good sign to me.


Friday, July 04, 2014

irony and radicalism

 Thomas Mann’s Reflections of a Non-political man is a hodgepodge of self-pity, brilliant cultural analysis, and the special brand of pure ludicrousness that is Mann’s special style, his mark on the German language that he accepts in all its bureaucratic curlicues, letting them lead on until one becomes aware of a certain ridiculousness – as though a line of goosesteppers suddenly found themselves doing the can-can. The book arose out of Mann’s total depressin as  Germany was going down to defeat in World War I, which Mann couldn’t understand or accept. Even worse, the whole thing seemed to bear out the predictions of his  Francophile brother, Heinrich, who made a career, as a novelist, in gleefully attacking the whole order of Wilhelmine Germany.

It leans right, these Reflections, then, but in a very odd and sneaky way – reactionary outbursts are then mugged by subtle qualifiers before they can get too glorious and lyrical; the moans and groans of a patriot are touched up so as to seem almost mockable, a transvestite parody of patriotism, and the pursuit of theses that are based on simple oppositions soon collapse those oppositions, making the reader wonder whether he blinked, somewhere, missed something essential, should we get off the train now, have we missed the stop??? Mann repudiated the rightwing association with his work later in the 1920s, but he didn’t repudiate the Observations. He sublimated them, so to speak, in Magic Mountain, where points of view were not argued by an essayist but by characters thrust into a particular situation and context. In other words, the essayist’s privilege – to vigorously represent a point of view – is ceded to the novelist’s privilege – to give free play to all points of view and – the modernist move – privilege none of them, not even the novelist’s own, so long as they serve the greater pattern. The didactic moment in the story is thus disarmed by form and - a key word for Mann - irony.

In the Reflections, the word irony crops up dozens of times, so often in fact that we begin too wonder what the word means. Mann gets down to really telling us in the last chapter in the book, entitled Irony and radicalism, which presents a view of radicalism that would not have seemed unusual in 1919, when it was published, but that seems peculiar now, for us, who can barely remember when Leftism was a triumphal creed, and every party organizer knew that history was on his or her side. Mann rather brushes by this radical certainty – he grasps the discontent with the order of things as is, but not the ferocious sense of the future. Thus, he calls the radicals nihilists – since the alternative, life as it is lived or utopian abstractions, seems to him to boil down to the notion of better nothing than this.

This notion is not completely dead on the right: although the Hayekian critique of central planning rests on the rather bogus assumption that no central planner can have information complete enough to actually efficiently plan an economy, it really rests on a notion nicely spelled out by Michael Polanyi: there is a kind of information – tacit knowledge – that simply can’t be reduced to the calculable. Life, in other words, is a slapstick affair.

In opposing irony to radicalism – in equating, in fact, the ironist with the conservative – Mann gets some purchase on what irony means for him. I don’t know if, by this point, Mann had read Kierkegaard, but Kierkegaard, another conservative, had sniffed down this path before. For Mann, irony seems to be a way of privileging life over the intellect. At least, that is how it seems to start out. But – just as in Kierkegaard – irony has to be understood as a movement. If the radical choses the intellect over life, the ironist does not simply choose life over the intellect. Rather – the second movement of irony – the ironist understands the impossibility of life without intellect, and the secret longing of intellect for life, for embodiment. The ironist, seeing this, doesn’t have a plan of action – this is the heart of the ironist’s conservatism:

“Still, irony is always irony with regard to both sides: it is directed as much against life as against the intellect, and this takes from it the great gesture, this gives it melancholy and modesty.”
Irony here pokes through the surface of the comic, in which it sees life and intellect or spirit entangled, and sees this eternal wrangle as something melancholy – not richly tragic, but melancholy, which is not just a modern substitute for the ‘tragic’ feeling, but an absolute modification of it.

Mann took irony as his authorial method: though one finds ideas in his novels, and there are characters who spout Mann’s ideas, in fact, one shouldn’t take the novels as a vindication of those ideas,or the characters that spout them as heros. There is a famous dispute about whether, in Doctor Faustus, Mann’s narrator, Zeitblum, is meant to represent Mann’s ideas about Germany in the twentieth century. But given the ironic method, it would make sense that Mann’s ideas, in Zeitblum’s mouth, become something different – something fatally vulnerable to objection – and that Zeitblum himself isn’t quite equal to – quite worthy of, so to speak – the story he tells of his friend, the genius Adrian Leverkühn.  

All this, then, comes out of this 1919 book. But a funny thing happened to the radicals of the twentieth century: they began to combine their leftism with irony, very much on Mann’s terms. It didn’t take long, actually – Weimar radicalism – that spanning Tucholsky, Brecht and Benjamin – already made Mann’s vision of the positivist radical seem outdated on the edges. In the West, by the fifties, no radical intellectual would think of making bombastic pledges about engineering the future without hedging them closely about with irony. In fact, the critique of the privileging of the rational over the living migrated to lefty discourse.  

And yet, the deepening of what one might call the artistic vision of the left came at a price: its increasing impotence. In one of those paradoxes that are worth contemplating, as the left adopted a more and more critical stance towards instrumental rationality populations – including the wage class – came increasingly to regard the inheritors of the right as better organizers of the economy and of social welfare than the left precisely because they weren’t afraid of instrumental rationality – quite the contrary. 

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The muses have not fled...

When BMW introduced its in-car navigation system in Germany, the system was a model of technological excellence, using a computer-generated voice to give highly accurate information about the car’s location and how to get to almost all city and street addresses. Unfortunately, a large number of drivers had a strong negative reaction to this technological marvel and demanded a product recall.  The problem? The navigation system had a female voice. German drivers felt uncomfortable with, and untrusting of, a “female” giving directions! BMW acquiesced and switched to a “male” synthetic voice.

When I dial a company, the routine is that a pre-recorded female voice ‘answers’ and tells me that I should press one for x, two for y, etc. When I plug in a GPS, a pre-recorded female voice responds to my question, how do I get to Y, with instructions that consist of turn left or turn right and the name of the street or highway all the way there. When I go on a subway, a pre-recorded female voice will tell me “doors closing”. When I go to the licence bureau, I’m handed a ticket with a letter and a number on it that corresponds to a window, and I listen while a pre-recorded female voice calls out the letter number combination  that are will tell me what windows are open.
Not the same voice. But a female voice. Washed of any accent. Blanched, you could say, to the whitest white degree.
There are the ocassional male voices. Right off hand, I can think of the throaty, airplane piloty voice in the airport warning you not to carry packages for strangers or let your bags out of sight for an instant.
But mainly we are surrounded by these fantasmal female voices.
It is as though, in some parody of the 70s feminist demand that female voices be heard, they are now being heard, evacuated of all personality, conveying the corporate message.  From the gnostic philosophy of history, parody plays a major role in the dynamic of universal history – it is a wild card and has no pre-existing political value attached to it. I am tempted to call these omnipresent, instructing and ordering voices the correlate of lean-in feminism, but that would be a cheap shot. Still, I suspect something deeply patriarchal is happening here that is culturally connected to the celebration of corporate CEOs as models of feminism.
I have read little about this phenomenon from a feminist perspective, although surely there is a paper out there. Francois Ribac, in an article in L’homme et la societe (1997), wrote a long essay on what he called La voix re-composée, these “top model” voices that are “re-assuring and dynamic, young and without accent.”  I’m not sure about the young: it is characteristic of these voices that they erase their characteristics. Ribac was interested in the fact that our projection of our own humanity on these voices is in contradiction with the fact that they are blends, synthetics.  They are machines. He traces the history of the voice-off to moments in musical history. This is, to my mind, a less interesting aspect of them, or I should say, I am less interested in the way the synthetic voice emerges in musical history than how it emerged as a corporate voice.
Clifford Nass, who has done a lot of work in the voxsynth field, describes an experiment he made with voices and stereotyping in The Man who lied to his laptop. He created a fake auction space on the web, in which voices describe items.
“Participants clicked an audio link to hear the description of each item read by a “spokesperson.” Half of the participants heard all of the descriptions read by a female voice; the other half heard them read by a male voice. To make the absurdity of stereotyping absolutely clear, we used computer-generated voices that varied only in pitch: the voices sounded more like male and female Martians than anything human. After they were presented with each item, participants were asked about their feelings about the product, the pitch, and the spokesperson.”

Anthropologically, I’d be careful about using the word “absurd”. In fact, anthropologists have found that in the “interface” with the world, personhood is routinely ascribed to beings that the educated elite in the developed countries have learned not to ascribe personhood to. There’s a beautiful and definitive essay by   Sergio della Bernardina, ‘A person not completely like the others: the animal and its status” which mixes field work and the literature on rituals in which cruel things are done to animals to make the point that the cruelty is often seen, by the participants, as a form of justice for the faults the persons – the hunted or sacrificed – committed. Bernardina recounts a ‘game’ in Spain which consists of  burying a  cock up to its neck and then, among the members of the  group that surrounds it, taking turns, blindfolded, in trying to detach its head with the blow of a stick.  The players, or one of the players, repeats a set phrase: “It’s over, m. le coq, to sleep with the chickens.”

In the cases of the voices, this is what Nass found:
“… the “female” voice did a better job selling the stereotypically female products, while the “male” voice did a better job selling the stereotypically male products. In addition, when voice “gender” matched product “gender,” participants reported that the descriptions seemed more accurate. In other words, matching the gender made the descriptions themselves more believable and the voices selling them seem more expert. Given that the voices were not human, the speakers obviously could not know anything about the content nor use the products!”

If we take a clue from Nass and cherchez le stereotype, perhaps we will find that the persistently female voice on the GPS corresponds to the notion that the female sits on the passenger side and the male drives. However, since this stereotype doesn’t override, among German BMW drivers, other of their reactions (although I must admit that anecdote sounds a little too pat), we have to unravel the overdetermination involved in the production and diffusion of these disembodied voices, the muses of our discontents and lost moments.