Monday, December 31, 2007

New year's eve traditions

Ah, New Year’s eve!

I know many of LI’s readers will be out tonight. Some of you will be breaking into deserted houses and cleaning out the valuables before the besotted party goers come home. Others will be spraying graffiti on limos, or tossing bricks through store windows, or engaging in other socially valuable anarcho pranks. Others, like LI, are planning on a quiet evening of glue sniffing and Solaris. But whatever rocks your boat, do it tonight with a pure heart! Here’s a little video from Turbostaat to get you started – any of you who are planning on joining the Russian mafia should take notes!

And of course, tonight is the night we traditionally think kindly of the late Rick James.

oh you sweettooth generations!

In our last post, we used G.E. Moore as our intercessor to think about John Stuart Mill. Our interest in the weird troping of happiness in Mill’s Autobiography was piqued by Colin Heydt’s essay on Mill and Internal Culture, which we intended to pursue next. Instead, we are going to perform our usual zigzag – LI is a veritable encyclopedia of zigzags, and damme if I’m going to change now, mes droogs et droogesses – and advert to William Hazlitt.

Hazlitt was a dogged critic and reader of Bentham, wrote one of the great essays about him in the Spirit of the Age, and, as well, made a sidelong attack on James Mill in On Reason and Imagination, an essay that does a lot, even as that lot has, until recently, escaped consideration. In the last ten years, however, there's been a mini-Hazlitt revival in lit crit circles. It is with the latter essay I’d like to start. But start what? Start considering the structure involved in positing an object that is lost if you search for it – the object in question being that mood/emotion/assessment/feeling, happiness. Mill's bland usage of the term conceals, as Moore points out, a divided meaning that slips between that which is the equivalent of the good and that which requires – to use phenomenological language – an aboutness. Moore thinks that we can affect a logical analysis keeping these two senses apart, and that this is how we will start out doing ethics in a proper way; but one wonders, after Moore has won his logical victory, what exactly he has shown. Or rather, one wonders why he thinks that the impulses that are gathered under the naturalistic fallacy can be sorted out simply by better semantics. Perhaps the logical conflation of happiness with the good does arise simply from a mistake in the language of discourse; but instead of simply correcting that mistake, perhaps we should try to chart the deeper structure of it in the mythologies of everyday life.

For that kind of business, Hazlitt was your man. He was not only an essayist, but an artist and a philosopher. A Jacobin who never betrayed the cause, at the same time he was resistant to thinking that the sweetness of life was a mere aristocratic bauble, or that it could be atomized, packaged and sold by means of a calculus of pleasure and pain to a succession of sweettooth generations. And in these intuitions he seems to be our natural intercessor.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

the naturalistic fallacy in three rounds

(From the Cites obscurs site)

In John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, he says a rather strange thing about happiness:

“I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken _en passant_, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self- consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning.”

The logic of this passage is familiar, even if it is rather baffling. The pursuit of an end, according to Mill, entails the loss of that end, while its non-pursuit entails finding the end. There glimmers, here, the kind of pre-established harmony that Adam Smith identified with the invisible hand – the baker, the butcher and the candlestickmaker all pursue one end, which is the satisfaction of their greed, and enact another, which is the optimal provisioning of society as a whole. And there glimmers here, for those who’ve read their Freud as well as their Smith, a variation of the fort da game – which, remember, is also a way of detouring around an end – bringing Mommy back – to gain an end. “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life, for my sake shall find it. – Jesus’ paradox uses the condition – ‘for my sake’ – to soften the claim – but Mill, a secular man, is willing to embrace this truth unconditionally. This is the real cunning of reason, the glass bead game it plays with the Es.

G. E. Moore, in Principia Ethica, devoted a good part of his chapter on hedonism to refuting Mill’s elaboration of Bentham’s happiness thesis in Utilitarianism. Moore analyzed like an English gentlemen, which meant that statements contained in Mill’s autobiography were out of bounds. Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail, Harry Stimson, Harding’s Secretary of State, famously said as he closed down the first U.S. intelligence agency, the Black Room, which had been set up by Wilson. On the same principle, philosophers don’t read each other’s autobiographies. Rather, they joust only with the salient texts, those with the philosophy label clearly stitched to them.

Moore begins the chapter on hedonism recapitulating the terms of what he called the “naturalism fallacy”:

In this chapter we have to deal with what is perhaps the most famous and the most widely held of all ethical principles—the principle that nothing is good but pleasure. My chief reason for treating of this principle in this place is, as I said, that Hedonism appears in the main to be a form of Naturalistic Ethics: in other words, that pleasure has been so generally held to be the sole good, is almost entirely due to the fact that it has seemed to be somehow involved in the definition of good—to be pointed out by the very meaning of the word. If this is so, then the prevalence of Hedonism has been mainly due to what I have called the naturalistic fallacy—the failure to distinguish clearly that unique and indefinable quality which we mean by good. And that it is so, we have very strong evidence in the fact that, of all hedonistic writers, Prof. Sidgwick alone has clearly recognised that by good we do mean something unanalysable, and has alone been led thereby to emphasise the fact that, if Hedonism be true, its claims to be so must be rested solely on its self-evidence—that we must maintain Pleasure is the sole good to be mere intuition.

Moore then analyzes Mill with this fallacy in mind. Unsurprisingly, he finds that in Utilitarianism, Mill was operating as a semantic rent-seeker – that is, he was covertly using unanalyzed terms – like “desireable”, which Moore saw Mill using in two different senses – on the one hand, as a description of what is desired, and on the other hand, as a synonym for what ought to be desired.

Well, then, the first step by which Mill has attempted to establish his Hedonism is simply fallacious. He has attempted to establish the identity of the good with the desired, by confusing the proper sense of desirable, in which it denotes that which it is good to desire, with the sense which it would bear if it were analogous to such words as visible. If desirable is to be identical with good, then it must bear one sense; and if it is to be identical with desired, then it must bear quite another sense. And yet to Mill’s contention that the desired is necessarily good, it is quite essential that these two senses of desirable should be the same.

Moore then makes two further steps. One is to reverse Mill’s terms regarding pleasure – instead of pleasure being the object of desire, Moore think it makes more sense to call it the motive of desire. This involves a tricky bit of casuistry, and an example that can’t be more clubbish:

For instance, granted that, when I desire my glass of port wine, I have also an idea of the pleasure I expect from it, plainly that pleasure cannot be the only object of my desire; the port wine must be included in my object, else I might be led by my desire to take wormwood instead of wine. If the desire were directed solely towards the pleasure, it could not lead me to take the wine; if it is to take a definite direction, it is absolutely necessary that the idea of the object, from which the pleasure is expected, should also be present and should control my activity. The theory then that what is desired is always and only pleasure must break down: it is impossible to prove that pleasure alone is good, by that line of argument. But, if we substitute for this theory, that other, possibly true, theory, that pleasure is always the cause of desire, then all the plausibility of our ethical doctrine that pleasure alone is good straightaway disappears. For in this case, pleasure is not what I desire, it is not what I want: it is something which I already have, before I can want anything.

There’s nothing that makes a person feel more like adopted Alex’s habits in Clockwork Orange than this port wine talk in the works of the Oxbridge philosophy set. After a while, you want to put on your hobnailed boots and crunch the wine glasses underfoot with sadistic glee. But leaving this to one side – Moore definitely has Mill on the ropes here. And now comes a bit of fun – even Oxbridgian philosophers can have fun with a bit of close work in the corner:

But now let us return to consider another of Mill’s arguments for his position that happiness is the sole end of human action. Mill admits, as I have said, that pleasure is not the only thing we actually desire. The desire of virtue, he says, is not as universal, but is as authentic a fact, as the desire of happiness . And again, Money is, in many cases, desired in and for itself . These admissions are, of course, in naked and glaring contradiction with his argument that pleasure is the only thing desirable, because it is the only thing desired. How then does Mill even attempt to avoid this contradiction? His chief argument seems to be that virtue, money and other such objects, when they are thus desired in and for themselves, are desired only as a part of happiness . Now what does this mean? Happiness, as we saw, has been defined by Mill, as pleasure and the absence of pain. Does Mill mean to say that money, these actual coins, which he admits to be desired in and for themselves, are a part either of pleasure or of the absence of pain? Will he maintain that those coins themselves are in my mind, and actually a part of my pleasant feelings? If this is to be said, all words are useless: nothing can possibly be distinguished from anything else; if these two things are not distinct, what on earth is? We shall hear next that this table is really and truly the same thing as this room; that a cab-horse is in fact indistinguishable from St Paul’s Cathedral; that this book of Mill’s which I hold in my hand, because it was his pleasure to produce it, is now and at this moment a part of the happiness which he felt many years ago and which has so long ceased to be. Pray consider a moment what this contemptible nonsense really means. Money, says Mill, is only desirable as a means to happiness. Perhaps so, but what then? Why, says Mill, money is undoubtedly desired for its own sake. Yes, go on, say we. Well, says Mill, if money is desired for its own sake, it must be desirable as an end-in-itself: I have said so myself. Oh, say we, but you have also said just now that it was only desirable as a means. I own I did, says Mill, but I will try to patch up matters, by saying that what is only a means to an end, is the same thing as a part of that end. I daresay the public won’t notice. And the public haven’t noticed. Yet this is certainly what Mill has done. He has broken down the distinction between means and ends, upon the precise observance of which his Hedonism rests. And he has been compelled to do this, because he failed to distinguish end in the sense of what is desirable, from end in the sense of what is desired: a distinction which, nevertheless, both the present argument and his whole book presupposes. This is a consequence of the naturalistic fallacy.

So much for Moore’s fun and games – which is just LI’s way of introing our next post, (we hope), which is about Colin Heydt’s “Mill, Bentham, and Internal Culture.”

Friday, December 28, 2007

Dispatch from Bozoland

In the last post, LI foreswore political commentary. This post will be full of political commentary. Consistency, as Emerson said, is something I’ll cram up your ass if you bring it around here again, got that sport? Or maybe it wasn’t Emerson who said that – that was a marginal note on a Scorcese script. Damn.

Anyway, as I have pointed out and pointed out, the fraud of the GWOT, a fraud at the very root of the Bush administration response to 9/11, was eventually going to blow up in our faces. As we know from every testimony that counts, pre-9/11, the Bushies thought ‘terrorism’ was one of those stupid Clinton obsessions. After 9/11, especially after the nation turned a blind eye to the paniced and clueless president they saw buzzing around the country, the administration still didn’t understand the first thing about Al Qaeda, but they did understand that this was unparalleled opportunity for thievery, for invading countries, and for making political gains. So the laughable Afghan war ended with the press praising President Backbone, and paying no attention to the fact that President Backbone had just let Osama bin Laden go (ah, if only we had tapes of the conversations between PB and his Rove. The idea that OBL would be a Bush yo yo, conveniently caught in 2004, was surely bruited about). Just as they obligingly looked the other way and found a threat in Iraq long before the US mopping up operations against the Taliban went bad in the spring of 2002. Meanwhile, the press obediently took the rhetoric for the fact: and lo, on stone tablets it was writ that the opposition – whether softy Dems or demonstrators against the coming Iraq war – didn’t understand terrorism. This is funny like a cosmic joke. It is so funny we decided, just for grins, to sacrifice more than 675,000 Iraqi lives as a punchline chaser.

So we spent 4 trillion on the GWOT, and we made OBL a video star. It turned out it was harder to yo-yo him than anybody thought, especially as Iraq went south and there was no extra troops available. Funny, dat. The idiot policy in Afghanistan did make the Taliban viable again – and tossing OBL into a country with a considerable, low level network of Islamicist parties and militias, with inside connections in the military and the ISI, was like putting in a plug and play accessory.

The problem that I have, here, is one of vocabulary. I’ve long exhausted the thesaurus for synonyms for stupidity. One wants some word that stretches nation wide to describe the American consciousness in this tawdry, vile decade, but where is that culminating word? How can you describe a people who have their dopey eyes open and watch as they are rooked, as their army is destroyed to make money for a bunch of halfpint corporate desperadoes and the vanity of a catalogue model president, and who still don’t fucking get it? Who allow the press to talk about ‘progress’ in Iraq, when what they mean is that one or another theocratic party has killed enough people to create a local vacuum in which they can peacefully attack, say, women who go to beauty salons?

Ah well. It's bozoland, Jake.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

There wasn't any joint: 2007

LI has been reading over our 2007 posts with some disappointment. In 2007, we were much more verbose and much less witty than in 2006.

The main thematic difference between this year and previous ones is political. From 2001 until about June of 2007, we emitted a constant stream of howls. Notably, about Iraq, and the crimes and misdemeanors of the Bush years. But in June we looked back and realized that, for all the denunciation of the feebs, the psychos, the deepily and creepily murderous D.C. set, it mattered not a wit. When the Democratic majority calmly let itself be immobilized and zombified by the Petro Gun club, displaying the same kind of acumen and forward looking spirit which infused the halcyon days of Bremer’s rule in Iraq, it answered the question that foamed on our lips: can this governing elite be saved? At the moment, grassroots politics in the U.S. is a sick joke, if not completely dead. It consists of what, four vegetarian Quakers? It is scary how dead. The slack jawed peckerwood and the cretinous investment banker, that unlikely duo that always emerges in true coup regimes, have so kicked the ass of the angels of our better nature that they seem down for the count. LI’s animadversions on this situation had become less critique and more the bad habit of a man in middle aged psychological meltdown. Fuck it, and fuck them.

In place of politics, LI’s posts became big, boggy steps on the way to our project – tracing the rise of the happiness culture and its tragic flaws. Plus we mixed in the usual welter of LI’s kinks. The language of the posts became self-dealing, inward looking –and rebarbatively explicative. But what can we do? It is in our nature (as the scorpion said to the frog) to be a village explainer, a crackhead on a cracker barrel.

Looking ahead, we doubt we will avoid picking at the scabs of politics completely. Next year is an election year, and that is always like shootin’ time in the shithead factory, as we get down to that rawest strata of the American Volk, a shared and beloved bozoism, mc-ed by a millionaire press squad compounded of sycophancy and hair oil. Fun for all!

So, this is the bad news. The good news is… well, LI has made some steps in the right direction, that is, as far as our happiness project is concerned. My image for this project is of a subterranean groping forward in a great darkness, the exploration of long lost passages clogged with the marbleized detritus of forgotten civilizations, upon which I can shed some flickering little light. The twentieth century, don’t you know. LI is, at least, an intrepid conceptual spelunker. So intrepid that the further I advance, the more I get the feeling that I’m alone down here, and nobody knows what the fuck I’m talking about.

“I knew a man once did a girl in.
Any man might do a girl in
Any man has to, needs to, wants to
Once in a lifetime, do a girl in
Well he kept her there in a bath
With a gallon of lysol in a bath
This went on for a couple of months
Nobody came
And nobody went
But he took in the milk and he paid the rent.
But here's what I was going to say.
He didn't know if he was alive
and the girl was dead
He didn't know if the girl was alive
and he was dead
He didn't know if they were both alive
or both were dead
If he was alive then the milkman wasn't
and the rent-collector wasn't
And if they were alive then he was dead.
There wasn't any joint
There wasn't any joint
For when you're alone
When you're alone like he was alone
You're either or neither…”

Okay, so much for confession. And contrition, I think I’ve been contrite. I've apologized, here, god damn it! And also, to be frank, I've written some hot stuff too. But I will do better, people; I vow to be funnier in 2008. Honestly. You’ll see.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


LI’s advice of the day: if you want to understand what is happening in the markets right now, you will read John Lancaster’s LBR essay.
Sample from the essay: Lancaster is talking to his friend, Tony, an investment broker or something – whatever that means nowadays.

“My friend Tony, however, is sanguine. ‘Sorting out who’s in the shit is going to be a nightmare, but when it all shakes out, all it’ll mean is that credit is a little bit more expensive. That’s a good thing. It had got crazy. It was cheaper for companies to borrow money from other companies than it was for governments. That’s nuts. These things are cyclical, it had all just gone too far and we needed a correction.’
‘So we’ll have to stop running around spending money like drunken sailors,’ I said.
‘Well, drunk sailors tend to be spending their own money,’ Tony said. ‘By contemporary standards they’re quite prudent.’”

Oh, it hurts. It hurts!

Control and Resistance

One day in 1877, the pastor of a town in lower Silesia, Krummhübel, had a talk with a man named Lehnert. Lehnert was twenty seven. He’d served in the army. His father, a wheelwright, was dead. His mother had asked the pastor to have a little counseling session with her son, who’d spent two months in jail for smuggling. Lehnert had been making threats against the Forester, a man named Opitz. The pastor had taught Lehnert when he was a child, and had some affection for him, but he told the young man that frankly, these threats were getting to be too much. Also, he’d heard that Lehnert had been speaking of the ‘republic”, praising ‘happy America’, and seemed to have absorbed some of the radical phrases of the schoolmaster – and this, too, had to stop. Lehnert should stop treating the law as if it was “sinning against him.”

Lehnert defended himself by pointing out that he had been a good soldier. He wasn’t disobedient by nature. But Opitz was jealous of him. He’d been jealous of him when they served in the army. Opitz had made a special effort to deny Lehnart the iron cross. Lehnert had a way of thinking about people like Opitz that reconciled obedience and standing up for oneself:

»Oh, Pastor, you know how it is, and you know, also, that we’re not so bad, I especially not. I was in the army and know, what it means to obey, and no reasonable man can be against obedience. For it keeps everything together. And so does the law, too. But people, Pastor, people, they make the difference, and when one of them is useless, that makes everything bad. I know that, too, from being in the army, and I have to say, and I have it written in my discharge, that I was a good soldier. But it is up to those who have the command, it is up to them, and what different kinds of superiors there are! There you had to appear with your pack on and two hours of exercise in the courtyard, and the sun burns and prickles, and however much you beat yourself up, parade drill is worthless, the sword hilts remain awkward and even if they were right, you have to go this way again and again, you have to go that way again and again, and then a blow under the chin and curses and threats, “I’m gonna throw you into the stock house or jail.” Yes, Pastor, low ranking officers like that – and there are a few – also demand obedience and they find it, but when the time has passed, than you put your leg out and trip em, or you get them into a corner. And those who do that are not against obedience and discipline, they are simply against the low ranking officer. So me, I am not against the law, even if I don’t always obey it, I am simply against this jerk, this man skinner and boozer, Opitz«.

This is from Theodore Fontane’s novel, Quitt. Lehnert is a wheelwright and an occasional smuggler, not a philosopher. He doesn’t explicitly appeal to conventions and codes, but to the ‘way things are’. Historians might baptize the smuggling, and the getting of some sadistic sergeant in a corner where one can beat his face in, as resistance. And the forces of order – the officers, the forester Opitz – as the face of control. Myself, so far in my work on the ‘happiness triumphant’, I’ve been trying to get at the sense people make of their emotions and norms within a capitalist society, or one that is being transformed into a capitalist society without using control and resistance as my fundamental concepts. Anybody who goes to academic talks will get an earful of the word ‘resistance’, as though it possessed an irresistible mesmeric charm – and it does, but I often think the charm is the white magic of identifying, so many years later, and in the comfort of one’s day to day, with the very different day to day of the people one is studying. I wonder if the people who it is used about, those micro-resisters on the resistance frontier, wouldn’t instead come up with a speech much like Lehnert’s – far from being troublemakers, they are enforcing a rule of the game, which is about how far you can go, and how much you enjoy, enforcing the official rules.

I’m thinking about these things in relation to an essay by a medievalist, Barbara Rosenwein, “Worrying about Emotions in History”, published in the American Historical Review in Summer, 2002. It is a good overview of the explicit theme of (oh, the ugliness of this word) ‘emotionology’, going from Lucien Febvre’s plea for a history of emotions in 1941. Rosenwein has a critical point to make about the metanarrative going forward from Febvre – and really, she claims, from Huizinga, who Febvre was criticizing in the first version of his essay. That metanarrative makes the common analogy between societies and individuals, seeing history as a process of human growth in which childhood – equated with barbarism, or with the middle ages, or with Naturvolk – is supplanted by maturity. So the childlike spontaneity of emotional expression in the Middle Ages is followed by bourgeois control of emotion, or adulthood, bringing us into the present, where control has become the ‘managed heart’, and organizations reach all the way through to the way we feel. This narrative, Rosenwein claims, groups together two other features: one is the idea that emotions are irrational, and the other is the use of the hydrodynamic model to talk about emotions. Emotions build up, are channeled, explode, are diverted, and so on.

Against this, Rosenwein wants us to see emotions as recent cognitive science sees them. They aren’t irrational. They are part of the way human beings assess situations. They are strategic.

I’m not altogether sure why Rosenwein thinks that the assessment model and the hydrodynamic model are incompatible. The deconstructionist in me thinks that Rosenwein is working in an intellectual situation created by a classically false bind, constructed by the way the term ‘rationality’ is used. This bind generates two strategies – one of which is to use rationality and irrationality as canonical terms denoting the cognitive and the emotional, the other of which takes emotion to be as rational as any other cognitive state without asking whether that doesn’t overthrow the meaning and use of rationality. And the perils of these strategies stem from that moment buried in social rationality which makes the thing depend, ultimately, on an uninvestigated pursuit of happiness. The line which runs through the register keeping apart reason and sentiment is erased at this crucial juncture. The notion of an autonomous rationality, or an autonomous morality, one that will eliminate the passions, will always have this all too human moment. Rosenwein’s notion that emotions are assessment tools and that they have been treated, unscientifically, in a schema derived from the humors, is not without its advantages; yet by capturing the emotions within the paradigm of self-interest, the assessment idea seems, itself, to be invested in an ideology that is anything but scientific. The appeal Rosenwein is really making is to the heuristic of cognitive science, not to the science itself. It is easy to imagine a pluralism that could accommodate both the hydraulic and assessment view of emotions. But the whole affective region seems, in my opinion, to go well beyond both schemas.

Yet I am sympathetic to the larger critique Rosenwein makes of Febvre and Elias: that is, that the supposition that there exists a culture in which the emotions aren’t controlled – a savage or barbarous state – is an illusion. What is happening when the civilized is contrasted with the barbaric in terms of maturity? You find the retrospective tendency to project an image of childhood or parenthood on the past among the Greeks. It is an old, old motif, and it has its advantages. It helps identify the speaker, for instance – either as a master of spontaneity who has put aside the senile presuppositions of the older generations, or as an adult who can appeal to science to settle disputes. And it obviously legitimizes largescale coercion, which is why the idea of indigenous people as children became so popular in the 19th century. Of course, the corollary to coercion is murder, and since murdering children to make them behave has never been popular, the child reverts to the savage when they start charging British troops or bushwhacking French poilus. But as they are, collectively, a child, killing individual members of the collective could be seen, perhaps, as a love tap. This idea cropped up in 2003 among the war fans to explain the ingratitude of the Iraqis. It turns out that they were wounded, in their adolescent sense of honor, by the fact that they couldn’t overturn Saddam Hussein themselves. So they were collectively pouting.

But as I am comparing the happiness culture to something like the ancien regime’s ‘sweetness of life’, I have to ask if I’m not falling prey to the same old myth.
Even though Lenherdt is Fontane’s creation, I believe the case he makes does, in fact, reflect a process of reasoning – or, if you will, of tacit reasoning – about the control exerted from on high by the masses who were, in one way or another, objects of that control. They sought to control back, but for every rare anarchist who succeeded in winging a King, there were thousands and thousands of Lenherdt’s, shooting the middle men in the dark forest. Lenherdt knew why the rules were there; he found reasons to make exceptions, in his case, to the rules, but was perfectly willing to bear the consequences if caught; but he also had a sense of fairness about being caught. If the middlemen enjoyed their power too much – when we meet Opitz, Fontane takes care to describe the way he puts his iron cross on a ribbon that is just large enough to make the cross sway when he moves, thus showing how, even on the most trivial level, Opitz is a showy man – then they weren’t being fair.

Fontane’s story is set before railroad connections made Krummhübel a resort town for skiers and hikers in the Riesengebirge. Nabokov, for instance, skied in that area in the 1920s. And after World War II, after the Germans had rounded up the Jews of Krummhübel and sent them off to the camps, the Poles took Silesia and expelled the German population. Krummhübel is no longer a city on a map.

All those larger events, stage noises off, all of those deadly futures…

Monday, December 24, 2007

io saturnalia

Io Saturnalia

This is supposedly the cry on the lips of the slaves and plebes during the celebration of everybody’s favorite holiday dedicated to Saturn. Saturnalia is connected by ties of carnival and reversal to Matronalia, when the mistresses feasted the slaves, according to Livy. This is what Frazer says in The Golden Bough:

“WE have seen that many peoples have been used to observe an annual period of license, when the customary restraints of law and morality are thrown aside, when the whole population give themselves up to extravagant mirth and jollity, and when the darker passions find a vent which would never be allowed them in the more staid and sober course of ordinary life. Such outbursts of the pent-up forces of human nature, too often degenerating into wild orgies of lust and crime, occur most commonly at the end of the year, and are frequently associated, as I have had occasion to point out, with one or other of the agricultural seasons, especially with the time of sowing or of harvest. Now, of all these periods of license the one which is best known and which in modern language has given its name to the rest, is the Saturnalia. This famous festival fell in December, the last month of the Roman year, and was popularly supposed to commemorate the merry reign of Saturn, the god of sowing and of husbandry, who lived on earth long ago as a righteous and beneficent king of Italy, drew the rude and scattered dwellers on the mountains together, taught them to till the ground, gave them laws, and ruled in peace. His reign was the fabled Golden Age: the earth brought forth abundantly: no sound of war or discord troubled the happy world: no baleful love of lucre worked like poison in the blood of the industrious and contented peasantry. Slavery and private property were alike unknown: all men had all things in common. At last the good god, the kindly king, vanished suddenly; but his memory was cherished to distant ages, shrines were reared in his honour, and many hills and high places in Italy bore his name. Yet the bright tradition of his reign was crossed by a dark shadow: his altars are said to have been stained with the blood of human victims, for whom a more merciful age afterwards substituted effigies.”

That’s your progress right there, friend – effigies for human victims. Ho ho! And were it only so today! Unfortunately, effigies have given way to simulacra, as in watching people die on tv (it’s not true! they don’t exist!).

Ovid bemoaned what had happened to Saturnalia – or so says J. W. Binns in his book on Ovid, which analyzes an odd passage in the the Ars Amatoria, or Art of Love. It is a lovely and mysterious passage:

“Anyone who supposes that the observation of the seasons is the object only of those only who till the fields or sail the seas is mistaken. Just as you cannot entrust the seed to the treacherous soil at any season, or the curved ships to the dark ocean, so it is not always safe to be ever hunting for dainty girls; often, doing the same thing will be improved by doing it in a timely fashion. If it is her birthday that comes, or the merry Kalends, which joins Venus’s month and the month of Mars; or if the Circus shall be adorned, not with statues, as it was in the old days, but displaying items as though taken from the treasure troves of kings, delay your project; then ugly storms and the Pleiades prevail; then, the tender Kids are sinking below the horizon. Stay at home, then. anyone who trusts to the deep can, with difficulty, barely grasp the shipwrecked fragments of his dismantled bark. You may make a beginning on the day on which tearful Allia was stained with the blood of the Latian wounds; on the day, too, when the festival recurs, observed each seventh day by the Jews of Palestine, a day not suited for the transaction of business. You should view your girl-friend’s birthday with the utmost dread, and any occasion when a present is due must be accounted a black day.”

Of course, one should remember that Ovid was running with a rich crowd, which ultimately doomed him, and he surely was often stretched for presents. Binns remarks that the Circus statues used to be bought and given on Saturnalia until more rich stuffs replaced those simple tokens. Yes, Virginia, commercialization precedes Christmas.

On Saturnalia, we moderns should recall our sexpol forebears. This year, I’m remembering Otto Gross – who, like every soul that has crossed the Styx and left behind memorabilia, has a website consecrated to him. For those who can navigate the German, I’d recommend the essay, Die Kommunistische Grundidee in der Paradiessymbolik. Gross supposes that the Paleolithic times were when men and women first discovered alphabetical writing and painting and dance and lots of hot hot hot sex, and then came the era of repression for about four thousand years. But the Russian revolution signaled goodbye to all that:

The highest ideas of humankind have been reached by that primitive time over to the future. We contemporaries have become aware of them as things of the coming day, and of our will; the ancients felt them still as memories. As the value of the oldest human generation, that of the golden first time period, Ovid in architectonically simple measures outlined the ideal program of the furthest future:

“Vindice nullo
sponte sua sine lege bonum…”

(“Golden was that first age which unconstrained
With heart and soul, obedient to no law,
Gave honor to good faith and righteousness,
No punishment they knew, no fear…”)

So, anyway: what are the top ten songs you should have on hand for this Saturnalia? Here’s LI’s list.

1. Li’l Kim, How Many Licks? Bittersweet year for Kimberly. I admire her for standing up, going to prison, not squealing. But I can tell something more has been drained to the Man – since getting out, Li’l Kim has been letting her celebrity loa ride her too too much. Myself, I think she needs to have a heart to heart with Roxanne Shanté.
2. Brazilian Girls, Pussy Pussy Pussy Marijuana.Inspiration for the whole family! “Pussy pussy pussy/I hear the angels sing…”
3. Lords of Acid Gimme Gimme. You are going to have a Saturnalia party without LoA? I don’t think so. I love the way this video, too, makes sex seem much nastier than it could possibly be in reality. The bunny rabbit is a nice touch.
4. Lady Bitch Ray Du bist Krank (Frau Dr. Bitch Ray! Frau Dr. Bitch Ray! Bitte umgehend in die Notaufnahme!) This has been a good year for Reyhan Şahi. She probably received a thousand death threats; she starred on Spiegel TV, though the bastards censored her; and now she’s become a regular on talk shows about sex in Germany. Rappers in Germany have accused her of simply ripping off Lil Kim, but she is on a totally other channel. Li’l Kim is a royalist. She isn’t called the Queen Bee for nothing. Lady Bitch Ray is an anarchist. She revels in the tease of it all.
5. Hanin Elias Tie me to the Wall You say yes every time/you want to destroy what I create. - I love those lines
6. Scissor Sisters Filthy Gorgeous. An especially sentimental hymn to the season.
7. Miss Kittin. Frank Sinatra. The kind of song that would make Nick Tosches foam at the mouth. But fuck it, it’s Saturnalia!
8. Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg 69 année érotique. Sorry, sometimes one has to bow to the inevitable. Serge Gainsbourg is to Saturnalia as Bing Crosby is to Christmas, no?
9. TLC. If I was your girlfriend. I’m supposed to resist TLC singing Prince songs? Who the fuck do you think I am?
10. Dandy Warhols Every day should be a holiday.

Happy Saturnalia, People! Pour some wine out, tomorrow, to honor the forces under the earth.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Sepulchral Cry

Dickens was famous for his long walks. When, in 1845, he was writing Cricket on the Hearth for the magazine he’d started, he started feeling unwell. He knew the writing wasn’t up to his usual standard. Plus, as his biographer John Forster explained, one of his pet ravens died “unexpectedly before the kitchen fire. ‘He kept his eye to the last upon the meat as it roasted, and suddenly turned over on his back with a sepulchral cry of Cuckoo!’” Also, his Christmas story was at a deadlock. Dickens began in fact to feel a little like his raven. In a letter to Forster he wrote: “I have been so very unwell this morning, with a giddiness, and headache, and botheration of one sort or another that I didn’t get up till noon: and shunning Fleet-Street… am going for a country walk, in the course of which you will find me, if you feel disposed to come away in the carriage that goes to you with this…. There is much I should like to discuss, if you can manage it. It’s the loss of my walks, I suppose; but I am as giddy as if I were drunk, and can hardly see.”

LI does not have a raven, more’s the pity. But, alas, our monitor, a sturdy, old fashioned thing that was about as big as a small truck and had a tv tube in its guts looked at us yesterday, just as we were making some furious comment in the comments block of some soi disant liberal blogger who’d written a miserable, flaking post for the Dems, and said Cuckoo, in effect, and reduced itself to a swirling mass of incomprehensible lines, framed with darkness – which is the death state of a computer monitor. This, of course, made me as giddy as though I were drunk. Visions of penury flashed through my brain. I have three editing jobs I need to do, plus I have to write the column. So I immediately called up my brother and poured out my woe, and that saintly sibling told me that he was planning on buying me a combined Christmas present/birthday present, and it might as well be something as boring as a computer monitor – although he did urge me, if any money was left, to spend the rest of it in a titty bar. Always looking out for me, my bro.

So I set out for the nearest place I could get a computer monitor on short notice, which is the Office Depot on South Lamar. One of the problems with not having a car is that you have to plan your larger purchases with one eye on the bus schedule. But I was full of panic and woe, and had no time for buses. I decided to hoof it – it is only about five miles from my apartment – and so I did. Whenever things go wrong in my life, I have a special set of brain cells devoted, day and night, to condemning me in the harshest terms imaginable. It is sort of an anti-erotic day dream. Although it is a puzzle to me why it is so easy for great vials of self-hatred to pour out just when I need self-flattery, so it has always been. My chief thought was that I was like some odious fly, clinging to the surface of life. This isn’t really a bad thought – I am like some fly, clinging to my little in this world. If I could get rid of my dependence on a computer I would be a freer man. My dream is to be so free that I can walk out into the Sonoran desert and never come back – this vision does not include a laptop. But the chances are I will never be so free that I can walk out into the Sonoran desert and never come back. Although I did walk quite fiercely down South Lamar. This calmed me a bit, and then I looked over the monitors and noticed that, of course, none of them looked like the big racky tv sets of yore – we are in the age of the thin monitor, and good for us. So I selected one, and eventually attracted the attention of the only clerk in the store who seemed to know about computers, and he turned it on, and of course the store model I was looking at, of the ten to fifteen on display, was the only one that didn’t work. Naturally. I had somehow, waking up yesterday, slipped into a bad luck zone, and all I could do was bow my head. So I purchased something in the same line, except nineteen inches, got a keyboard to go along with it – as my old keyboard has been having a hard time with the letter ‘w’ for a long time, and I supposed this was the time to toss the thing – and loaded up, made my way through what I now noticed was racy cold gusts to a bus stop. Just as I got there, the bus pulled up and the bus driver proceeded to hector me for not signaling him. I was in no mood to disagree, so I said I was sorry several times, and shuffled with my packages towards a seat.

It was the usual Narrenshiff. The bus driver’s dressing me down seemed to have attracted some favorable notice from the passengers; as I settled in my seat, the woman in the seat in front of me, who was knitting away on a scarf, made some commiserating comment about all my packages. Then the man across from her began to rail and laugh, and it was soon evident that he was talking to his mother. Alas, his mother wasn’t there – in fact, I’d bet she is no longer on this planet. But his conversation with himself, which included descriptions of all the passengers, went on pretty loudly until he abruptly got up, as the bus pulled up at a stop, said damn, there’s my parole officer, and descended, much to the common relief . After he got off, the men who were seated around the woman knitting began to go what are you making there and wow, you don’t look at your needles, and she launched into a long explanation of knitting, touching on its anti-stress qualities, the ability to watch tv whilst engaged therein, learningit, ease of, interspersed with remarks about her abused childhood, ADD, drug use and prisons. Everybody nodded, everybody also had forms of ADD, and everybody wished they, too, could knit, although as one man said, he was too violent to be trusted with long knitting needles for any length of time. I felt calmed down by this woman’s speech about knitting, too. It was just what I needed to hear. It was like a five mile therapy session, at the end of which the bus went on another route than the one I expected it to take and I had to get out and sit at another bus stop with my packages as the day came to a chilly end and I mastered the final shreds of my self loathing and thought about dinner.

Die Gedanken sind frei.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Waiter, there's a wire in my soup!

That the brain is hardwired or softwired is one of those half truths that drives the wires in LI’s own brain haywire. The idea that the nerve is a wire goes back, as we have shown in various previous posts, to suggestions made by Newton, and taken up in the eighteenth century by people like Hartley. Although strictly, the metaphor then was more of a kind of string imparting pulses, or vibrations. Galvani’s experiments suggested that the nerve was the locus of animal electricity – it was like the wire coming out of a Leyden Jar.

Now, in truth, there is no wire that I meet up with in the course of my day to day encounters with electricity that is like a nerve. The string idea, of course, still exists in the notion of nerve ‘fibers’ – which is only to say that the way in which the nerve had to be modeled on artifices of human manufacture as it was understood goes deeply into the way nerves are talked about. On some level, we are all naturally Hollywood voodooists – we make little dolls and explain human beings on the basis of those little dolls.

However, though fibers are what one might call a built in metaphor – they have become parts of the way that nerves are described - wires are not – wires retain the status of an external model to which nerves are compared. Saletan’s recent racist article at Slate about how whites are smarter than blacks, the one in which he based his science on the work of two well known racists and then backed off, due to the fact that he, in the five minutes of omniscience that he’d given to the subject, had neglected to review any of the literature on the subject, provoked a huge and hugely stupid discussion of IQ and genes, with the assumption that genes are the thing we should look to to explain our mental life. Genes, we are assured, either hardwire or softwire our brains. In fact, our brains have been examined for a long, long time by neurology, and if we want to understand human intelligence – something that is much different than IQ, which is the result of a very early twentieth century textual invention called an IQ test – we should look to what the neurological sciences say. In other words – the underlying notion that genes determine the way the brain is ignore the fact that the way the brain is is highly and necessarily plastic; and that plasticity is expressed in the constitution of the neural network. We have wiring systems that primitively approximate this – routers in a telephone system can connect x’s call to y via one group of telephone wires or wireless transmissions or another. Selection, here, also primitively embodies something that happens in the selection of neural pathways, in that the number of calls can select out one route over another – that is, the router can use some algorithm to determine if too much use is being placed on one pathway and route a given call to another pathway.

But the whole router/wire thing, here, not only lags behind the complexity of the brain, but it leads us to misunderstand the basic distinction between nerves and wires: nerves are made of discrete nerve cells. The junction between them is a synapse, where chemical mediators bear the impulses. The image of the wire has been the basis for two historical misunderstandings in neurology. The first was the dispute between Ramon y Cajal and Golgi about the structure of the neuron – with Ramon y Cajal rightly understanding neural cells as discrete from one another, and Golgi holding onto an older, continuous hypothesis, with the nerves imagined as things like wires – and the second, as Valenstein, in his history of neurophysiology in the twentieth century, puts it, was the “war between the soup and the sparks” – with those who dismissed chemical receptors, or the “sparks’ group, unconsciously bending their model to the model of the wire, Newton’s vibrations translated into Galvani’s electricity. Of course, the soup won – but oddly enough, we don’t talk about hard soup and soft soup. Although, indeed, that would be a better metaphor – but it would make the body seem more like something whipped up in a kitchen than engineered by Edison. I needn’t go into the masculinist anxieties that such images conjure – we can see them all around us, can’t we?

In actual fact, the direction of influence is now going the other way – we are developing wire networks that are more souplike, so that we no longer speak of wires. But these archetypes of engineering still litter our ordinary discourse.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Age of Bosoms

LI finished watching Wojciech Has’ The Sargasso Manuscript last night. We had to watch it over two days – the movie, which came out in 1965, is a series of nested stories, framed by one master story recounting how Captain Alfonso van Worden traveled through Andalusia to Madrid. On the way, he was seduced by ghosts/genii/women/infidels at an abandoned inn. The seduction goes so far that van Worden semi-agrees to abjure Jesus Christ and follow the Prophet.

Interestingly, if you go to the Web and read about this movie, you’ll find a blur of factoids. Was it made in 1965, 1964 or 1966? Was it set in the 18th century or the 17th? Those who watch the movie more carefully and obsessively than I have discover strange loops in the film. In the Penguin translation of the book by Jan Potocki, it is reported that Potocki “is said to have fashioned a silver bullet himself out of the knob of his teapot (or the handle of a sugar-bowl bequeathed to him by his mother): he had it blessed by the chaplain of the castle, and then used it to blow out his brains in his library (or his bedroom), having written his own epitaph (or, according to other sources, drawn a caricature of himself).” Potocki and his book and the film seem to generate different stories of the same event by onlookers.

Be that as it may, the film has another significance. It was in the early seventies that the historiography of the eighteenth century took a different view of the age of reason, discovering that it was actually the Age of Bosoms. This discovery was first made, I believe, by various horror movie directors working at Hammer Studios. Certainly by the time Roman Polanski made the Fearless Vampire Killers, historians had discovered that the one commonality held by the many, many women serving drinks at Ye Olde Inns across the steppes and moors of Europe was their daring décolletage. Of course, some in this school adhered to the Long Age of Bosoms theory – that the age of Bosoms extended from the mid seventeenth or even sixteenth century all the way up to about the time Lady Frankenstein met Dracula. However, all of these directors pale in comparison to Has. The Spain of the 18th century had its problems, as we all know: a declining empire, the imperial ambitions of France and Britain, the iron grip of the Catholic Church. All that to the side, it was definitely in advance of the rest of the civilized world in terms of see through blouses and plunging necklines. The latter, apparently, was a veritable science. Physics only caught up with the precision of the 18th century Spanish countess’ neckline in 1905.

LI – ever helpful to man and beast – has diligently searched for the roots of the Age of Bosoms. Is it the paintings of Boucher? Is it an attempt to sneak tits under the guise of historical accuracy past the watchful eye of the movie censor? Going back to the authoritative Madeleine Delpierre’s Dress in France in the Eighteenth Century, it appears to have been an effect of the whaleboned bodice, a devilish contrivance that raised the bust and narrowed the waist and made it very very uncomfortable to bend. Twentieth century directors liked the effect of the bodice, but wanted it to look like a robe volante – which is how the Age of Bosoms was born, I hypothesize, circa 1963, in the mind of director Tony Richardson making Tom Jones.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Bad News in this Holiday Season

LI was going to write about the NYT piece about the vaunted return of Iraq’s refugees. This was floated a month ago as a definite sign that the surge was working, but – as was obvious from the illogic of the reports – it turned out to be another big lie. Some refugees are returning, especially Shi’ites, but in the main, the drivers are economic – these refugees, it turns out, are simply going to another station on the downhill slope. This story almost effected me, although as an American proud to support our troops, and helping freedom wind its way around the world, I immediately forgot it as soon as I read it:

“Afraah Kadhom’s family is among the uprooted. She is 36, and usually shrouded in a billowing black abaya, a symbol of mourning. Her father and four brothers were killed two years ago when gunmen broke through the doors to the family’s house in Huriya, a neighborhood in north central Baghdad, and methodically hunted the men down. One of her brother’s sons, Mustafa, cradled his father’s head as the man lay dying. Mustafa, who is 9 now and shy, is the oldest surviving male member of the family. “The man of our house,” Ms. Kadhom said.”

Oh well, what was that again? But then, then, black news came. Lauren Goldstein Crowe writes a helpful post on her blog in Portfolio about what to get for those multimillionaires on your Christmas list. This is a bitter problem for LI. We have six hundred bucks in the bank, and we had our heart set on buying a limo or something for a few of our multimillionaire friends when this pesky credit squeeze came up. Crowe quotes from a poll which shows, pretty conclusively, that multimillionaires want quality in their gifts:

“Product quality and value for money top the list, though quality is slightly less important -- mentioned by only 60 percent -- to the really, really rich (with assets over $3 million) than it was to the just a little rich (with assets less than $1 million), 78 percent of whom thought it mattered.” O percent ascribed to the phrase; it’s the thought that counts. Those rich!

So I was absorbing this information when Crowe moves on to a matter that eclipses any petty difficulty some Iraqi hussy might be having:

“WGSN, subscription only, reports today that in order to keep prices of European goods reasonable in the US, some producers have been switching materials. "At Saks Fifth Avenue, there has recently been some price resistance among customers for some European apparel, according to Saks Inc chief executive Stephen I Sadove, who said Saks was working more closely with suppliers who are either changing fabrics, absorbing costs or raising prices."

Sadly they don't say which brands are changing fabrics, but whoever you are keep in mind the short-term gain could well lead to a long-term devaluation of your brand.”

My heart literally fluttered. Are we talking polyester???? Surely our forefathers, and our brave statesmen of the last two decades, have not fought and bled for the system the fruits of which we all enjoy so abundantly today in order for our wives and daughters to find… ‘changed’ fabrics hanging at Saks! Sadly, as Ms. Crowe puts it, European fabrics are being withheld from our Successful people. This is the kind of thing that deeply touches each and every one of us in this holiday season. Remember the wealthy in your prayers tonight, quietly weeping in Westport, in Morristown, and in many other fine gated communities.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

They say that I'm a clown making too much dirty sound

Every monkey like to be
in my place instead of me
cause I'm the king of bongo baby I'm the king of bongo

Karl Bücher is a not very well remembered economist. His ghost comes up, faintly, in the literature about Karl Polanyi. He was an economist of the ‘historical school’ back in the early twentieth century. The ‘historical school’ and the marginalists were pitted against each other, and each also pitted itself against Marx. Institutional economics owes the historical school – although it is commonly thought that the historicists were creamed when the marginalists began to produce groovy, mathematical models.

Bücher’s ghost also sometimes haunts … musicology. Of all things. This is because of a little book entitled Work and Rhythm. We all know about Taylor, and the making of work efficiency. Bücher, in 1894, worked along other lines. He listened to labor with that German metaphysician’s ear. He listened to the sound made by the shovel going into a sandpile. He listened to the smith hammering out hot iron. He listened to carpenters hammering, noticing how, if two carpenters are nailing near each other, they fall into a syncopated rhythm – the one striking a blow while the other’s hammer is raised to the midpoint, and then coming down and striking a blow. He noticed that a loom makes a sound. He thought about the muscular movements of non-skilled labor, and how they set up a sort of systole-diastole pattern.

Bücher thought that the spirit of music did not arise out of Dionysian ecstasy, but out of the tedium and rhythm of milling, hoeing, reaping. Although to speak of a ‘rising out of’ here is a bit of a mistake. Rather, the rhythms were intrinsic to the labor. If they were made into music, that music was not detached from work.

LI has been worried – is worried – that our contrast of the sweetness of life with the happiness culture is too nostalgic. But we need to highlight the reasons that alienation has stalked the happiness culture from the very beginning. One of those break points, we think, is the increasing disjunction between labor and rhythm. It has long been in my mind that I need to do a series of tremendous and tremendously boring posts about Marx, and how a millennial liberal such as myself, can read him, can still use him. At the center of our distorted picture of Marx is our translation of what Marx says about commodities into Weber-speak: commodities, for us, equals bundles of routines. There are advantages and disadvantages to our variation of Marx – one advantage, which we are willing to give up a lot for, is that the idea of routinization being at the center of industrial societies puts alienation back in the center of the critical study of capitalism. It is impossible to understand changes in the emotional customs wrought by modernization without having some good notion of alienation, not as an abstract thing, but operating to, for instance, create noisy work – in which all rhythms get muddied and shredded - and silent work – which has a sound profile we all know all too well. It is the clicking of many keys. I’m doing it now.

Blue Whale World

LI is looking at today’s NYT headlines – the Morgan Stanley losses, the recent EU Central bank decision to socialize the red ink of the wealthiest by throwing half a trillion dollars into the solvency crisis, the inevitable leak that the Bush White House, of course, had its hands all over the destruction of the CIA’s personal snuff n torture films – and we are trying and failing to see the big picture. We know, or we ought to know, that torture, bankruptcy, moral hazard as a governing style, and ill formed lies are what we should expect in societies that opt for transformative increases of inequality. It is no accident that the NSS-es of Latin America, when inequality had become intolerable in the 70s, became labs of death squads and jimmied up concentration camps – Argentina’s junta operating a torture chamber in a bank was not only another of Kafka’s nightmares from the Trial made real, but showed, once again, that the base of society is essentially poetic, made of symbols that are made of matter that are made of symbols...

I am, of course, on a perpetual hunt for the transmutations of matter and symbol in the newspaper. As I wrote in a post last week, unsustainable growth is a function of unsustainable inequality – the only way to keep the mass of people, who grow absolutely poorer if power over the limited amount of goods and services goes disproportionately to a small group of people, is to make sure there is a margin that would keep the mass relatively stable. That’s pretty much been our political life since the mid 80s in the U.S. The question has always been – when are we going to run into a wall? People like myself, who can’t stand the falsity, ugliness, injustice and claustrophobia of the money order are all too prone to see walls – for instance, the wall that seemed to loom up in 2002, as the tech bubble burst. One of the good things about Gregory Clark’s book, Farewell to Alms, is that he does make clear that we live in a Malthusian world – no matter what the new growth people think, you cannot, by taking thought, grow a cubit. That doesn’t mean that the earth cannot accommodate a lot of people – that doesn’t even mean that growth is bad – but it does mean that no system that we know of will allow human beings, who average less than two hundred pound each, to use up as much energy in a year as blue whales, who average 238,000 pounds each. At the moment, of course, Americans do – in effect, on today’s earth, there are around 300 million blue whales in the U.S. – about 500 million in Europe – maybe 50 million in China, etc., etc. I can’t imagine that the world is going to support 10 billion blue whales. Perhaps my mind isn’t sci fi enough.

Martin Wolf, the conservative economics columnist at the Financial Times, seems to be suffering through such a crisis of nerves, do to the distant sound of collapsing ponzi scheme in the financosphere, that he is becoming all Al Gore like. Or maybe he has been reading Gregory Clark, too:

“What is less widely understood is that they have also transformed politics. A zero-sum economy leads, inevitably, to repression at home and plunder abroad. In traditional agrarian societies the surpluses extracted from the vast majority of peasants supported the relatively luxurious lifestyles of military, bureaucratic and noble elites. The only way to increase the prosperity of an entire people was to steal from another one. Some peoples made almost a business out of such plunder: the Roman republic was one example; the nomads of the Eurasian steppes, who reached their apogee of success under Genghis Khan and his successors, were another. The European conquerors of the 16th to 18th centuries were, arguably, a third. In a world of stagnant living standards the gains of one group came at the expense of equal, if not still bigger, losses for others. This, then, was a world of savage repression and brutal predation.

The move to the positive-sum economy transformed all this fundamentally, albeit far more slowly than it might have done. It just took time for people to realise how much had changed. Democratic politics became increasingly workable because it was feasible for everybody to become steadily better off. People fight to keep what they have more fiercely than to obtain what they do not have. This is the “endowment effect”. So, in the new positive-sum world, elites were willing to tolerate the enfranchisement of the masses. The fact that they no longer depended on forced labour made this shift easier still. Consensual politics, and so democracy, became the political norm.”


“The age of the plunderer is past. Or is it? The biggest point about debates on climate change and energy supply is that they bring back the question of limits. If, for example, the entire planet emitted CO2 at the rate the US does today, global emissions would be almost five times greater. The same, roughly speaking, is true of energy use per head. This is why climate change and energy security are such geopolitically significant issues. For if there are limits to emissions, there may also be limits to growth. But if there are indeed limits to growth, the political underpinnings of our world fall apart. Intense distributional conflicts must then re-emerge – indeed, they are already emerging – within and among countries.”

Indeed – to quote Omar from The Wire. Socialist democracy might not be dead, after all, in spite of its End of History gravediggers.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

the bloody tree, the invisible hand

LI has been having trouble with this post, and in general with our posts on the pessimists. The reason is this: though the brunt of the pessimistic attack on the liberal system was, essentially, that the system made an unjustified and unjustifiable projection of a human mood – happiness – upon intentionally constructed social circumstances (in essence, what we have labeled the hedonic fallacy), the pessimists were by nature averse to system, and prone to launch into poetic arias about mythological pasts. Yet the nostalgia of the first counter-revolutionary generation – the generation that had actually existed under the ancien regime – is… not for the conditions of that existence. Maistre seems to long for the seventeenth century – or the sixteenth. Or the Spanish inquisition. Nietzsche sometimes seems to long for an Aryan never never epoch. I want to extract from this tradition one thing – the critique of the hedonic fallacy – but, as happens when you deal with literature, theme comes wrapped in the tentacles of connotation, and those tentacles wrap around the hardy interpreter. And the hardy interpreter begins to drown.

So that’s my complaint. This is what my post looks like so far.

In the beginning of 1789, Georg Lichtenberg noted down in his sketchbook the following thought: “Writing is splendid for awakening the sleeping system that is in every man, and each person who writes thus becomes healthier, for writing always awakens something that one didn’t clearly know beforehand, even if it lay within us.”

It turned out to be a good year for the sleeping system that lay within every man. Or systems – for the systems had been awakening for some time. If we were to take a crazy, Borgesian view of history as, primarily, the carrier of images, then we could shape this post, about Maistre, to a new view of the French revolution – as a sort of complicated delivery system that gets two Enlightenment images together – the invisible hand and the bloody tree. The tree of liberty that needs, according to Jefferson, to be watered with blood – the tree of liberty that was danced around by the revolutionaries – is appropriated, in 1797, by the counterrevolution, in the form of Considerations on France, Joseph de Maistre’s book. And another image, the image of the invisible hand, which is the presiding oneiric presence in Adam Smith’s work (see Emma Rothschild’s exemplary investigation of the invisible hand here as well as a number of posts at Praxis) migrates here, too. It comes together in the third chapter on the Violent Destruction of the human race (the dream we all dream of, pace Prince), the chapter, that is, on war and its place in a holy cosmos. The sleeping system that is in every man, at the time, was furnished with visions such as these:

“There is room to doubt that, besides, that violent destruction is, in general, as great an evil as is generally believed. At least, it is one of those evils that enters into the order of things where all is violent and against nature, and which produces compensations. Firstly, when the human soul has lost its ingenuity by its softness, incredulity and the gangrenous vices that follow the excess of civilization, it can only be re-tempered by blood. It is not easy, precisely, to explain why war produces different effects following different circumstances. What one sees clearly enough is that the human race can be considered like a tree that an invisible hand trims without stopping, and which often is all the better for this operation. In truth, if one touches the trunk, or chops off the head of the poplar, the tree can perish. But who knows what limits constrain the human tree?”

This image is enough to make me pause for a long time. It is easy to forget how the human tree is trimmed, so I’m going to put a picture her of one such trimming:

Maistre is such an odd and decisive writer – as Saint Breuve said, an inverse Voltaire – who seems, at time, to open himself up to a daemon of some kind. By all accounts, he was a kindly man who wrote lovingly to his daughter, and chatted to his friends, and tried to keep the King of Sardinia, who he served, from committing outrageous acts of petty tyranny. At the same time, he was penning books praising the Spanish inquisition, or praising the Pope to an extent that made even the pope uneasy enough to think Maistre might be sneaking a heresy by the Holy Seat.

The Considerations, as a whole, seems to operate on a sort of inversion principle. If Rousseau, in one of the holy texts of the revolution, said that everywhere men are born free, and yet everywhere men are in chains – Maistre begins the book by extolling the fact that men are in chains, and the end of the chain is held, at last, by the Lord. For the tree of libery, we have the tree of the human species, trimmed by an invisible hand. For the rights of man, we have Maitre claiming that man doesn’t exist – individual men exist. And yet this nominalist claim is never made to cohere with what one might call the prophetic dimension of Maistre’s work – that dimension that sees events, and not the men enmeshed in them, as the ultimate controllers of history. These events are miraculous – as Maistre says in the first chapter

That in the heart of winter, a man commands a tree, in front of a thousand witnesses, to bear fruit, and that the tree obeys – all the world will cry that this is a miracle, and bow before the magician. But the French revolution, and everything happening in Europe at this moment, is as miraculous, in its kind, as the instantaneous fructification of a tree in the month of January – yet, instead of admiring, men look away, or they engage in bad reasoning about it.”

Maistre’s theory of the miracle is tied to his theory of the event – a theory that precedes Hegel, but that forecasts some of the sheer grandeur of the Absolute spirit. Although the absolute spirit works with signs, not wonders – whereas Maistre’s divinity works with wonders and despises signs.

It is perhaps because history is a wonderworking phenomenon, outside of the scope of science, that Maistre always prefaces his most bold and bloody passages with a prognostic symbol – a decisive reference to an extra-European saying. LCC, in a comment a week ago on one of the posts in this series, pointed out that Maistre, as a Free Mason, looked partly to the Orient, or at least the Orient as it was codified in the Enlightenment, the Orient of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and William Jones’ translations from the Sanskit. To leap ahead: the most striking thing about the St. Petersberg Evenings is Maistre’s theory of the supernatural function of the executioner – the framing story to which is a long quote from William Jones translation of the Book of Manu. That Hindoo scripture had a sort of privileged place for European intellectuals before there were good translations of the Vedas or of Buddhist texts. As is well known, Nietzsche praises it – although Nietzsche, apparently, never read it. But before Nietzsche, Maistre praised it and actually read it. The conclusion he draws from it is awe inspiring and repulsive: that we live in an order of universal punishment, and any effort to overturn those punishments is an effort to overturn that order, and must be ruthlessly crushed. In the case that it isn’t ruthlessly crushed, by a supernatural law, the new, merciful order will blindly make its way back to punishments, and install even worse ones, even more arbitrary ones, before it is done.

As I’ve pointed out in previous post, the third chapter begins with a reported saying of the King of Dahomey that the world is made for war Certainly Maistre thinks that the world is eminently and transcendentally made – and in this, he senses, correctly, that he has already been surpassed by the philosophes.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Pollan Today

Michael Pollan is the best writer at the moment working for the NYT. It is with a mixture of amazement and jealousy that I trip through Pollan’s articles – like the one in the Mag today. Who else moves so calmly and clearly from Confucius and Marx to the honey bee and the hog?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fingering the Rope

In Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, under the entry on suicide, Voltaire writes:

“I will make but very few reflections on the murder of oneself here; I will not examine if the late M. Chreech was right to write on the margin of his Lucretius: “n.b., when I have finished my book on Lucretius, I must kill myself”, and if he had done well to execute that resolution. I don’t want to pluck out the motives of my old prefect, P. Biennasses, a Jesuit, who told us farewell one evening, and the next moring, after having said mass and sealed some letters, three himself from the third story. Each has his own reasons in his conduct.”

I’m intrigued by this Bartleby like M. Chreech. I occasionally used stickem notes to remind myself to perform some task, but the note to remember to commit suicide is, well, a pretty cold blooded note. Voltaire’s works themselves were the occasion of a famous suicide in Russia. In 1793, a landowner, Ivan Opochinin, decided to kill himself. On the night before he did so, he spent his time translating Voltaire. In his note he wrote:

‘There is nothing after death!
Corresponding to the most truthful principle, this just argument… made me take a pistol into my hands. I had no reason for putting an end to my existence. Because of my position, the future presented me with a self-willed, pleasant existence. But the future would pass forthwith: in the end my aversion for Russian life was the incentive that compelled me to decide my fate in an act of self-will.
Oh, if only all unfortunate men had the courage to use sound reason…” [from Irena Papperno, Suicide as a Cultural Institution in Dostoevsky’s Russia]

Indeed. While I have been following up the traces of pessimism in the last couple of weeks, I have rather bracketed the frame of reference under which this work is being done, i.e. my triumph of happiness project. A reader of this blog asked me, a few days ago, what exactly the opposite of this pessimism is. This question abruptly brought me back to the whole point of my study. Traditionally, there is a link between a utopian ideal and the critical work of exposing a total social phenomenon. If that link is severed, then, like Opochinin, perhaps one is only left with a suicide note that appeals to all unfortunate men to use the courage of their sound reason. In a sense, Opanochin died of a disease that was well documented by the great Russian writers: the disease of rural idiocy. Stranded in the sticks, Opanochin had nobody to talk to. In his note, he asks for his library to be given to the flames. One suicide wasn’t enough for him – his isolation required at least two suicides:

‘Books, my beloved books! I do not know to whom I should leave them; I am sure no one needs them in this country. I humbly ask my heirs to consign them to the flames. They were my first treasure, they alone sustained me in life; but for them, my life would have been an uninterrupted affliction, and I would long since have abandoned this world with contempt.” [Kliuchevsky, A course in Russian History]

Ah, the third life, the one that sustains the other two! Voltaire’s mention of Chreech piqued my curiosity. It turns out to be a reference to Thomas Creech, about whom there is a macabre anecdote in Macdonald and Murphy’s book on suicide in early modern England: ‘One rumor going around was that before his suicide Creech had red Biathanotos [Donne’s book on suicide], fingering a rope as he turned the pages.”

Now, that’s the true philosophical spirit. And an inspiration to book reviewers everywhere. As I have pointed out at length, elsewhere, the early moderns were prone to talk about volupte, a concept they believed they got from Epicurus, and not happiness per se. Volupte has its risks, and one of them is that it can bring you face to face with your material self. Opanochin in his note called his body a ‘machine’ – shades of Le Mettrie – and willed it to the anatomists.

But the pessimists did not call on people to kill themselves – indeed, these philosophic suicides are all in the progressive line, materialists who, according to the pessimists, simply came to the logical conclusion of materialism.

This short note will lead us to the next round of posts on Maistre.

Friday, December 14, 2007

IT's new post

I don't know
Why you've gotta be so undemanding...

IT has continued her series on porno. You can also see the beginning of this series here and another post here and her piece about pornographic classifications here. There’s also a sexpol piece here which I think may be the best in the whole series.

Here are some comments:

Since I am trying to write a review of a book that distinguishes three regimes of seeing in science, I am, perhaps, hypersensitive to issues of representation and the ‘training’ of the people who represent and the audiences they represent to. The technique of the self, as Foucault calls it.

There is a pattern I’ve noticed on theory blogs of taking films or music – usually not novels, poetry or paintings – and subjecting them to theoretical glosses with an entire and easy assumption of the epistemological superiority of the theorist. It is as if the theorist’s position is not only self explanatory, but that the theorist knows better than the work of art itself. I’ve sometimes wondered if this is why pop cultural products of a certain kind are so popular among the blogs. It is easy to present oneself as superior in every way to, say, 300 – much harder to do that when analyzing, say, Proust.

Myself, I think even the lowliest work of art – a student film, Anal Cheerleaders 5 – retains a certain autonomy. In practical terms, that means that the thing retains the power to touch. The moment of touching can be a moment of sheer disgust. It can be a moment of rapture. But its distinguishing characteristic is that it is not in the hands of the spectator. For a fleeting instant, the audience is not superior to the work. How to explain this? There’s a famous anecdote about Lenin, recorded by Gorki. Gorki had taken Lenin to hear a performance of music. Lenin said, afterwards, that he would like to listen to Beethoven’s Apassionata every day, since it made him ‘think with pride – perhaps it is naïve of me – what marvelous things us humans can do – but then, according to Gorki, “screwing up his eyes and smiling, he [Lenin] added, rather sadly: But I can’t listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, make you want to say stupid, nice things, and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell. And now you mustn’t stroke any one’s head – you might get your hand bitten off. You have to hit them on the head, without any mercy, although our ideal is not to use force against any one. Hm, Hm, our duty is infernally hard!”

Lenin had a very sharp sense for moments of surrender.

I think IT is more aware of the resistance of the artwork than other theory bloggers. And, by chosing to write about film porno, she has chosen to comment about a genre that implicates the spectator to an obvious and structurally expected extent. Just as you go to cook books to cook, not to marvel at the recipes - or most of us do - you go to porn to jack off, or as part of some foreplay ritual. So if you go as a critic, you have to self reflect a bit, have to explain your epistemological position a bit, have to discard the easy assumption of the theorist’s superiority. Like advertising, porno exploits the aesthetic moment of touch – exploits it like a pickpocket – and forces the critic to acknowledge it.

Anyway, there’s a theme in IT’s work, as she compares vintage porn to contemporary stuff, that goes back to her first posts. Her latest post puts it this way: “Contemporary porn is infinitely segregated. The atomisation of the 1950s filters through to a kind of obsession with taxonomy. The sheer hard work of contemporary porn, and its obsession with taxonomy, informs you that, without delusion, sex is just like everything else – grinding, relentless, boring (albeit multiply boring).”

It is the tie, here, between sex, work and boredom where I feel that the nature of porno as representation – as a work of art – is forgotten. Boredom floats, here, between the spectator and the actors. Is it that the porno actors are bored? Is it that the spectator finds them boring? I think that the line being blurred for someone as sharp as IT clues us into porn as a popular art. Popular arts are intimate like this, they work towards that blurring of the line. Few people, watching MacBeth, say, are thinking well, that is not how I would do it if I wanted to be King of Scotland. But if you watch a tv soap – if you’ve watched people watching a tv soap – you might actually talk back to the tube. “Don’t do it!’ “Oh, she’s going to be in trouble now.” “Oh oh, here comes X.” The idea that these are actors slips away, and with it Diderot’s Paradox of the Actor. Or, rather, one of the choices in Diderot’s essay – the actor as an instrument of spontaneity – is made, is systematically made, in the most unspontaneous of art forms, film.

I think this says something about the development of porn that forms the major theme in IT’s post. Although tv, film, music of a certain sort are parts of ‘popular culture’, I think they present themselves as intimate culture – and here I’ll just wildly speculate for a moment. When, in the seventies, the adult movie industry took off, porn was shown on the movie screen, in the heroic proportions that are natural to all things shown on the movie screen. But that posed the problem that Gulliver confronted in Brobdignag:

“That which gave me most Uneasiness among these Maids of Honour, when my Nurse carried me to visit them, was to see them use me without any manner of Ceremony, like a Creature who had no sort of Consequence. For, they would strip themselves to the Skin, and put on their Smocks in my Presence, while I was placed on their Toylet directly before their naked Bodies, which, I am sure, to me was very far from being a tempting Sight, or from giving me any other emotions than those of Horror and Disgust. Their Skins appeared so coarse and uneven, so variously coloured, when I saw them near, with a Mole here and there as broad as a Trencher, and Hairs hanging from it thicker than Pack-threads, to say nothing further concerning the rest of their Persons. Neither did they at all scruple, while I was by to discharge what they had drunk, to the Quantity of at least two Hogsheads, in a Vessel that held above three Tuns. The handsomest among these Maids of Honour, a pleasant frolicksome Girl of Sixteen, would sometimes set me astride upon one of her Nipples, with many other Tricks, wherein the Reader will excuse me for not being over particular.”

The audience in the adult theater was composed of people who were a bit bigger than a Splacknuck – which was Gulliver’s size – but they were still gazing at men with dicks the length of a man’s arm, approaching pussies as tall and broad as toasters. Porn (to continue my wild speculation) can’t stand this magnification. The more natural home for the stuff is the video, the tv or computer screen (although with tv screens getting bigger and bigger, who knows how this will upset the collective sensorium). I would be surprised if IT had actually ever seen a porno on the full screen – you have to be at least my age to have had that access, when adult theaters were springing up all over. Brobdignagian porn is mostly a thing of the past. As T.S. Eliot might have said, Splacknucks can’t bear too much hyper-reality. If my speculation is in the ballpark of reality, it would also help explain why, as porno shrank and became more commonplace, it also evoked less heated attempts to suppress it. The violence of gangbangs is rather magnified when the gangbangers are fifteen feet tall - and in fact the violent choreography of almost all sex is brought out at that range. Whereas porn among the lilliputians, which is what we have now, has to use intense close up to get the same sensorial effects.

I'll have more thoughts about boredom as an initiatory effect later.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

News from the Imbecile Republic

And soft, what light breaks through yonder moronic inferno! Although weep, children, we should weep for a kingdom that is overthrown, here, a true Caliban's paradise of private penitentiaries, a newe way and discoverie of cleaning up foul poverty by painlessly tricking poor people through the strategic placement of vicious FBI footpads until lo, they’ve gathered into their nets a quantity of em, all saying good things about Al Qabaedola, asking for shriner hats and submachine guns, and assuring their faithful contacts and secret Judases that whatever that city is that the Sears building is located in, they will be creeping in it like the biggest hardon, blowing up this and blowing up that.

Oh, but I can’t fool myself. LI admits to being such a Islamofascista that I would like to see the FBI agents who contrived this fired and tried themselves, and on up until we catch some of the Scooters in the Justice department. But this is a dream for another time and another nation.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Making the rich less rich is not socialism

I’ve become a reader of Floyd Norris’ blog over at the NYT. I’ve noticed, with some amusement, that any time a vague and distant hint arises that the rich in America might be oh, oh, slightly too… rich, the comments section is reliably flooded by screeds against socialism and for the American way.

It makes me long for a snappy way to point out that capitalism was not abolished in the U.S. in the fifties, nor was the Reagan tax cut on the wealthiest the second coming of Adam Smith in the eighties. What is funny about the rabid defense of the wealthy is that I imagine it often comes from the non-wealthy. It isn’t like billionaires are trolling blogs. But what they are defending is, of course, absolutely against their interests. It is the great American paradox: the almost saintly disinterestedness of the American householder in defense of systematic greed.

There are a number of ways to redistribute wealth down. Imagine, for instance, that unions had been strong enough, back in the eighties, to peg earnings to the ratio between upper management and the lowest paid functionaries in a company. Back then, the ratio was about 70 to 1 – today, it averages something like 300 to 1. If the unions had done this and the CEO level had succeeded in extorting the pay packages they had today, we would be living in a utopia in which the merest entry level receptionist would be taking home 150-200 thou. This would be excellent – except of course that corporations would no longer make profits. Instead, they’d be pouring all their cash into paying their workforce. Still, at the 70 to 1 ratio, upper management’s efforts to increase their compensation packets would have significantly pulled the earnings up of the entire workforce.

Unfortunately, when you don’t have powerful unions, you have to rely on the countervailing powers of the state. You have to work, then, to raise the taxation on the upper tier considerably. You have to do this not only because you need to pay for public investments, but because there is a macro good to great income equality. For one thing, it discourages economic activity that is, in reality, mere churning. Looking at the mortgage mess, one can see more and more clearly how the fantastic, Pirenesian structure of false economic activity has worked since 2001. It has allocated money not to the most productive, but to the most churnful. For another thing, more equality now means more equality latter. As the gap widens between the resources of the rich and the not-rich, it becomes exactly what we socially reproduce. Those non-rich who, for instance, decided that the death tax, otherwise know as the estate tax, was just terribly unfair to their children actually screwed their children terribly, because they are not leaving the kids fortunes, whereas the fortunate few are – thus aggravating the already unfair structure that separates rich from non-rich children. The cost of abolishing the estate tax is borne by the non-rich in such areas as trying to get their kids into top schools and the like.

But what most impresses me about expropriating a good share of the wealth of the wealthy is its environmental impact. As anybody with the eyes to see can see, the last twenty years have been years of great GDP growth in many countries. In fact, the whole Tom Friedman-esque economy is oriented towards steroiding GDP. Why? Because if you are going to have increasing inequality, growth is the way that the middle income sector – the vastly more numerous non-rich – can, at least, maintain their lifestyles. But GDP growth could also be called the Diminishing Environmental Return. DER is the natural result of overexploiting a system that is limited in many ways. Put up a zillion towers for cell phones, and you can say bye bye to songbird populations – make your McMansions of tropical wood, and strew them with the kind of wiring that gives you 24/7 instaconnectoinstamaticinstatubelivegirlsxxxxpronomatic action, and you can say bye bye to the environment of Sumatra. Down the intertubes it goes. It is an incredible waste of resources, which is the total result of the elite decision to grossly exacerbate the wealthiest’s share of the wealth. With a greater equality of income, of course, GDP doesn’t have to grow as fast. The drift of our current society into endless war, endless stupidity, an endlessly degraded public sector, the unwinding of all those hard fought democratic gains of the last one hundred years, is the direct result of a simple arithmetic ratio. To repair this – to go back to the managed capitalism, as Kuttner calls it, of the past – isn’t socialism – it is the self interest of the vast mass of American citizens.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

From My Third Life

LI has a book column to write about two books: Objectivity, by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, and Trying Leviathan, by D. Graham Burnett.

Daston and Galison mount a pretty impressive marshalling of evidence of the way, in a number of sciences over the past two hundred years, we can see three distinct regimes of representation. The first regime, truth to nature, or the search for types and ideals, G. and D. date to the eighteenth century – the second regime, objectivity, or representation that strives to eliminate any subjective bias, emerges, in their scheme, in the nineteenth century – and the third regime, trained judgment, which organizes ‘mechanically objective’ representations in terms of trends, thus reintroducing a form of consensus subjectivity, emerges in the twentieth century. Periodization doesn’t imply that this is a history of zero sum games - the rise of one regime doesn’t entail the extinction of a formerly dominant regime. However, it does imply something more interesting: the rise of different techniques of becoming a scientist. One casually speaks of the scientist as an observer, but in fact, observation is a trained act, and the training is structured around what, exactly, it means to see a phenomenon, what one is looking for, how one proves that what one sees connects to a given theory.

Obviously, I will have to refine all of this in the sugar mill of reviewing. In general, though, this is what the book is about.

All of which is an excuse to quote Marcel Schwob.

Marcel Schwob is not a name to conjure with. For the most part, even your most bookish literatus has forgotten Schwob. But he has interesting fans – among them, Borges, Bolano, and Calasso. Which is a lineage as exciting to me as the descent of Bonnie Prince Charles from James II was to your average raving Highland Scot. I’d fight under their colors.

Schwob was a fin de siecle writer. Like Mallarme, he knew English and translated from that language. He was Robert Louis Stevenson’s friend, but he also knew Jarry – Ubu Roi is dedicated to him. Myself, I’d read his name in The Banquet Years, I believe, but had never had the urge to reach for Schwob until I read Calasso’s brief essay about Imaginary Lives. Calasso claims that “the flame of this book is not yet extinguished. Today, when many who read Borges are discovering the subtlest, most vertiginous magical charm of the fantastic and a certain secret mathematics of the story, they will recognize a master in Schwob and a model of this literature in his book. … Marcel Schwob… invented a new genre of adventure literature which sought no immediate contact with reality, but rather took the byways of philology and mystification…

So I searched on the Intertubes, and of course found a site dedicated to Schwob and – hurray! – a decent archive of his texts, including Imaginary Lives. The book consists of a preface on the biographer’s art and twenty two brief lives, from Empedocles to Burke and Hare. Reading the preface, I came upon the following passage that … floored me. There are bits of literature that stick in my brain. They become a sort of third life to me – after my waking life and my dreaming life. And I know exactly when something is destined for that third life.

Here’s the quote:

History books remain silent on these things. In the rude collection of materials that are furnished by testimonies, there are not many singular and inimitable breaks. Ancient biographies in particular are miserly with them. Valuing only the public life or the grammar, they transmit to us the discourses and the titles of the books of great men. It is Aristophones himself who gives us the joy of knowing that he was bald, and if the pug nose of Socrates hadn’t served as a touchstone of literary comparisons, if his habit of walking about barefoot hadn’t been part of his system of philosophy by showing contempt for the body, there would only have been conserved of him for us his moral interrogatories. Suetonius’ gossip’s tales are only hateful polemics. The good genius of Plutarch sometimes made an artist out of him: but he did not know how to understand the essence of his art, snce he imagined ‘parallels’ – as if two men, properly described in all their details, could resemble one another! One is reduced to consulting Athanasius, Aulus Gellus, scoliasts, and Diogenes Laertes, who thought he was composing a kind of history of philosophy.

The sentiment of the individual was more developed in modern times. The work of Boswell would have been perfect if he hadn’t judged it necessary to cite Johnson’s correspondence and his digressions on books. Aubrey’s Eminent Lives are more satisfying. Aubrey had, without a doubt, the instinct of biography. How aggravating that the style of this excellent antiquarian is not on the same level as his conception! His book would have been the eternal recreation of the select few. Aubrey never felt the need to establish a relationship between individual details and general ideas. It was enough for him that others sealed the celebrity of men of whom he took an interest. Most the time, one doesn’t know if one is dealing with a mathematician or a statesman, a poet or a watchmaker. But each of them had his unique trait, which distinguished them forever amongst mankind.

The painter Hokusaï hoped to get to the ideal of his art by the time he was one hundred years old. At this moment, he said, every point, every connecting line traced by his brush would be alive. By alive, we understand him to mean: individual. Nothing is more similar than points and lines: geometry is founded on this postulate. Hokusai’s perfect art required that nothing be more different.”

This story about Hokusaï is ingenious and – as it happens – gives me an angle to look at the story of objectivity as told by Daston and Galison. For it is in the space of that reversal of geometry itself – from a science depending on the similarity of lines and points to the perfect art in which each line and point is alive – that one finds the anguish in the scientific drama of objectivity. For to represent, say, crystallized urinary deposits just as they are seen under the microscope, in their one time only state, is eventually to succeed from the whole purpose of scientific representation. One can’t build a science on the one time only – without regularities the urinary deposit, the snowflake, the species of woodpecker, the star, the canals of Mars, become a hyperclear orgy of distinctness. And in this orgy there is no master of ceremonies – even the stick that would point out the details is an insufferable interference with the phenomenon as it is. Integrity, not aura, is the scientist’s pole star, but integrity, too, falls victim (to its own weird success) in the age of mechanical reproduction.