“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

Sunday, June 19, 2005

the metaphysical roots of the Bush culture part 2

To take up the threads from our last post – Simmel writes about the benefits that arise from an apparent weakness of the tertium figure. The weakness is the inability to preserve the aura of sentiment around a idea. Nietzsche might well call this the leveling effect of the mediating figure – the ignobility that comes from the economic moment, the transformation of an idea into a unit of exchange, rather than an indescribable moment of power. The power, the “mana”, the Ur-generosity, is systematically sapped from the inspiration. It is disgraced – that is, it no longer is in the order of grace, but of reason; and by and by gives rise to a system of substitutes that refers, always, to some primitive leader or utterance. The inspiration is delegated, but not completely lost. Such delegative structures often generate myths of return – the return of Jesus Christ, the return of the literal Constitution, the return of pure socialism, the return of family values.

The third party becomes the image of objectivity through the paradoxical force of the indifference that undermines him as a partisan, a potential part of a dyad. Tertiary prestige depends on breaking the prisonhouse of the couple, the emotional bonds of contending parties, not by an act of violence but by an incapacity for the sentiment of violence. There is, of course, something very inhuman about that, insofar as humans consist of those fuzzy sets of the individuals and aggregated couples described within Simmel’s taxonomy. And when objectivity finds its spokesmen in human beings – as must necessarily be the case in this sublunar world – the latent feeling of repulsion accumulates until it gives birth to another feeling: suspicion that an agenda is being advanced under a mask; that the third party is a manipulator tracing a secret path to power. Such is Iago, such is Shylock.

Such, too, were the excisemen of England, or at least as Tom Paine saw them. In last spring’s Social Epistemology, William J. Ashworth poses a question: what cultural motives would lead to valuing objectivity? His partial answer is in his essay, “Practical Objectivity: The Excise, State, and Production in Eighteenth Century England.” It is a nice stab at giving us an unnoticed locus for the rise of objectivity as a value: the tax system. This is the kind of thing to give you Randians out there the fantods.

As Ashworth points out, the success of the English tax system was the primary condition for the success of English imperialism. Other systems in other empires – Spain, France – by privatizing the extractive institution of taxing, while retaining state prerogative over allocutive institutions, made themselves vulnerable in competition with a state that could successfully monopolize taxation (which is not quite Ashworth’s point, I should point out, but LI’s addendum.) And a state that could do the latter would have an incentive for tolerating or encouraging private enterprise.

So, how did taxing encourage objectivity?

“To assist in its attempt to define and levy the production of home produced goods, theexcise, in particular, turned to quantification, and a particular notion of accuracy thattried to advertise claims to objectivity and equity in its gauging activities.3 The constitution and stages of a taxed manufacture had to be defined and made clearly accessible to the excise method. As well as defining what ingredients manufactures could use, it also dictated what times they could begin production and what shape the site of manufacture should be.

As well as needing technical ability a prospective excise officer required patronage from someone of recognised social authority. Thereafter his career was, at least in theory, subject to merit. Training and a degree of worth rather than mere connection were novel features in eighteenth-century England. So too was the tool of anonymity. The excise officer was deliberately plucked from areas suitably distant from his round to ensure his face was unknown in his place of business. In other words, his relationship with the local community, at least to begin with, was not based on familiarity but on anonymity. To ensure this process was sustained, after a specified period the officer was duly removed to serve in another district. This is in contrast, for instance, to the collection of the land tax, which was collected by local respected figures. Thus, if, as Steve Shapin maintains, ‘Premodern society looked truth in the face’, it was the case at the excise that so-called truth was coming face to face with strict bookkeeping, internal checking, instrumentation and anonymity.”

Indeed, Ashworth’s account of the difficulties shaping the administration of the excise, and the incentives that drove it to greater accuracy and objectivity, display the logic Simmel discerned in the creation of the third party.

There is, firstly, weakness:

“To ease the volatile relationship between the producer and the excise required the development of new techniques of collection. The general unpopularity of the excise made it vulnerable, and this was perhaps one factor in its drive towards its particular bureaucratic structure and practices—in the words of Theodore Porter, ‘the drive to supplant personal judgement by quantitative rules reflects weakness and vulnerability’”

There is, then, the benefit that accrues from this vulnerability. The uniformity of a standard leads to “regularisation across the country,” leading to that odd seemingly contradictory social fact: a society that is both more strongly identified with the state and more individualistic. Ashworth gives some instances of accuracy in various manufactures – of paper, glass, and beer – that are expressed, in the exciseman’s regulating gaze, oddly like the description of manufactures in the Encyclopedie, Taxes give us an “objective” textbook of technology, and become an unwitting vehicle of technological selection.

Ashworth points out that the excise taxes were placed upon the masses, representing the “first time the masses had been seriously taxed, and, secondly, [demanding] a great deal of contact time at the source or target of the tax.” So accuracy and objectivity spread among the population who had, previously, associated the tertiary power with the ascetic.

The delusion inherent in the thought that civilization progresses is to think that different, early stages in the civilizing process are overcome. This is the Whig’s neurosis, or the liberal’s. Disciplining a population to accept and even value objectivity is hard work, and there is always a current of resentment that can break either to the right or to the left. What we see, in Bush culture meritocracy, is a compromise formation – expertise is guaranteed by position, not accuracy, or various modes of separating knowledge from performance, like the testing in the school system. And within different modules, success becomes a matter purely of persuasion – so that the unpersuaded are marked down not as people with, perhaps, a different take on facts, but people who impede the whole flow of the organization. Wreckers, in short. This penetrates even into the source of information, which becomes contentious. To get a certain piece of information from an unsanctioned source – to operate as though the third had its own will – is to defy the rules of the meritocracy, which then proceeds to either ignore or ridicule the bearer of that information.

LI has been thinking that the third figure, the third who is always with you, the resented tertium quid, has a myth. Remember Bellerophon? Bellerophon was a nice, handsome Greek noble who repelled the advances of the wife of the king. The wife went to the king and told him that Bellerophon had tried to rape her. [First instance of Simmel's third, the couple and the child]. The king, believing her but afraid of Belleropon, sent him on to the King of Lydia as an emissary, with a sealed letter. [Second instance -- the letter as the third's emotional disengagement] The letter read: kill the bearer of this letter. The king, reading the letter, decided to do away with Bellerophon by having him kill a monster ravishing the district, the Chimera. [Third instance -- the resentment of the couple, visited on the third, by way of a substitute for the couple]

Bellerophon is the image of the tertium quid. His indifference is his menace, and he carries his death sentence in a sealed envelope. But that sentence is infinitely differed, as his supposed weakness shows itself, in the end, to be latent power. After all, he did slay the Chimera.

In the Bush culture, the figures of objectivity are all being given secret death sentences -- except the death they are supposed to receive is a purely social death. A death of inattention, of never making it into the mainstream, of being extremists, of being labeled by the labelers as "not serious." We'll see who survives this struggle.


Deleted said...

If you can't respect the man, Roger, you should at least be able to respect his office. He has to have had some merit to get there. At the very worst, he has no choice in a democracy but to embody some of his supporters' better qualities. Disrespect for him inevitably taints the office your side someday hopes to hold and insults good people.

Perahps a good taxing will engineer a little respect into you, or some objective way of evaluating where you would like society to go.

roger said...

Harry, I've learned at your very feet -- or your blog's feet -- to suspect that maybe people are elected because they embody their supporters worst qualities -- devil's advocates all!

Actually, like I was trying to indicate, Bush culture preceded Bush and will no doubt survive him. Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton and Michael Kinsley are as much a part of it as George. Well, they are paler bits of it, admittedly, degrees on the thermometer.

But the tactical tact that people on my side ought to be thinking about is how to both embody the tertium quid and disarm the threat it poses. I can't imagine people on my side tracking their muddy boots over the rugs in the Oval Office, but there are other and more subtle sources of power, don't you think? Which I'm gonna write about soon.

Deleted said...

Like a good host, Roger, you always manage to find a way for your guests to salvage something from their clumsy attempts at playing off your writing. I missed the indication, but understand it now.

roger said...

Harry, I know you get impatient with me for spending all my ammo on the Bush people and not whacking at the numerously outrageous Dems. Partly this is because the Dems are simply insignificant right now. But partly this is because I am thinking through, in my own mind, what it would mean to be political and without a party in this country.

I'm pretty convinced that the Dems are insignificant because they are led by people who are in a radical disconnect with the Dem consituency. The Dem leaders -- the politicos and consultants and thinktankers -- are all moderate GOP wannabes in D.C. who've been washed through the same schools and businesses as the rest of the elite. and they visibly want to have a brighter, whiter, maler, more, well, GOPish constituency, instead of one full of divorced women, blacks, Hispanics, and the general help that they disdainfully pump up every four years. What other party eagerly waits around for its leaders to do a sister souljah moment -- basically, insult the people who most faithfully vote for them?
That's incomprehensible from one point of view. But from the D.C. p.o.v., it is like the boys in the war room can go, Score!

So -- anyway, they take an instinctive charity lady attitude to the constituency -- they are going to HELP us, as long as we shut up. This is why there is such pathetic enthusiasm when one of the old fucks actually says something honest, like for Howard Dean in 2004.

In one sense, the Dem leadership is a sign of the success of the old New Deal Dem leadership -- the rise of the children who are grandchildren of the GIs who returned from WWII and received the benefits of the New Deal package. Which was embraced by Eisenhower, too, of course. What has happened in the U.S. since around 1980 is that the upward mobility is broken. Actually, this is true around the world -- in Mexico, in Venezuela, in Egypt, etc., if you look at income trends, the median income for a working class household either stopped growing around 1980 or had to push other workers out into the market place to survive. I look at the Dems as a typical post 80s organization that has its roots in an early economic framework -- rather like GM.

Anyway, in my opinion, the movements I'd like to see in the U.S. are going to have to work through both parties, and in some ways outside of the law -- although like I say, this is meat for a later post.