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

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

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

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Where is Happiness?

When Louis Sebastian Mercier issued his Moral Fictions in four volumes in 1792, he prefaced it with an explanation of moral fiction:

When I entered into the deceiving career of letters, a little more than twenty five years ago, all the new authors, my confreres, made heroides, or composed moral stories; the heroid served as a the young poet’s preliminary study for tragedies. But this rhymed monologue did not have a long vogue; the narrow frame appeared too fussy, and soon became insipid. However, the moral story maintained itself for a longer period – or, to change my terms, from the form to the character, it is still pleasing, and will always please in its variety, when to the painting of the motile nuances of our ridiculous traits it joins the durable colors and gentle precepts of a moral without pendantry. Besides, the moral story has enriched the French scene with a crowd of interesting and novel situations. A number of authors, entirely lacking in invention, have borrowed from it dramatic subjects that have been crowned, more or less, with success.”

Of course, Mercier was well aware, in 1792, that the conte morale had spawned a sort of pornographic shadow. Ivan Bloch, the sex historian, claims that the literature of pornography, in the 1790s, overwhelmed, in sheer volume, all other types of literature. Certainly much of that pornography was didactic. Sade is the most famous example, but this kind of thing runs back to the seventeenth century combination of frondiste pamphlet and libertine philosophy. In the 1740s, for instance, Therese Philosophe became an underground best seller by alternating the successively more raunchy adventures of a sweet last cast among horny monks and the nymphomaniac pious – scenes that were generally consciously written to produce a tableau, a picture, as though the text, like some out of control caption, faced the standard engravings with which these books were illustrated – with the precepts of volupte and anti-clericism, taught by the monk or the priest or the guide in those rare moments of detumescence.

Mercier takes the view, here, that moral fiction is about debuting as a writer. We take this as a sign that we should not compartmentalize the discourses of pleasure and pain, or the philosophical investigation of the passions, by some test of genre and systematicity. We shouldn’t just look to, say, Condillac to understand the unfolding of sensualism. Which is why we want to compare two texts – one being Mercier’s Where is Happiness? and the other, Diderot’s entry on the Passions in the Encyclopedia – since both texts turn on the notion that, somehow, our passions aren’t free – which leads to the paradoxes developed in Mercier’s short story of an Egyptian king who a pleasure island decrees, in the hopes of spending ten days, with his court, in pure and uninterrupted happiness.

But before I do that, let me say something about ‘sensualism’.

There is a tradition in the history of philosophy – codified, in the nineteenth century, by Paul Janet - that tells the following story to help us separate the baroque seventeenth from the enlightened eighteenth century: in the seventeenth century, Descartes and even Hobbes is still mixing up a metaphysical analysis of ideations and passions with a physiological one. Even as the Cartesians were supposedly setting their face against the Galenic orthodoxies of the Academy of Medicine in Paris, they were still caught in the humoral paradigm (the subject of a fascinating good book by Noga Arika, the passions and tempers ). So even in the Passions of the Soul, Descartes still leaves the basic framework in place, simply inversing some of the standard Galenic values. While for the humoral school, the subjective viewpoint is wafted up to the brain by animal spirits, like fairies or familiars, and distributed to the various kingdom organs of the body by transmutable fluids, in Descartes vision it is distributed from the brain, with the pineal gland being the palace of ultimate enchantment, where spirit transubstantiates into body. The body below the skin, is conceived of as the landscape of an Arthurian romance, in which our goodly passions and ideas embark upon obscure heroic quests that take them from the liver to the heart to the brain, those three dark kingdoms, or vice versa. By the seventeenth century, this lively, obscure body, the kingdoms under the skin, had already been exposed by Vesalius, and the bloodstream of it was about to be navigated by Harvey. And like the cartographic shock given by the discovery of the New World, the philosopher doctors tried, at first, to parry the shocks of anatomy with the same system and another level of complications. But this system of philosophic physiology broke down.

The result was not the abandonment of philosophical speculation about the ideas, but instead, in good Hegelian fashion, the overcoming of a discourse that had become too hybrid, too saturated by themes originating from too many disciplines in Locke’s radically simplifying gesture. Locke wrote in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding that he ‘shall not at present meddle with the physical consideration of mind; or trouble myself to examine wherein its essence consists; or by what motions of our spirits or alterations of our bodies we come to have any sensation by our organs…”. All at once, philosophy was freed. The subjective point of view could now be pursued in terms of itself alone. Retroactively, one could even read this moment back into Descartes. Thus philosophy shook off the material dross of medical speculation.

Whether in fact the subjective point of view could be thought of in terms of itself alone was contested in the Enlightenment – it was an aspect of the struggle with epicurean materialism. However, LI will now dim the lights on this background and return us to – the Egyptian king.


Thursday, October 11, 2007


LI reads the papers. Everybody reads the papers. So the papers say retail sales are sluggish. They say that retailers have predicted lower sales for fall. And they say, the stock market went up again. They say the stock market went up because of the news about retail sales. Out of the bad news, the market honed in on a report from Walmart predicting better sales this fall. And that was enough to send the market up 65 points.

American capitalism is infinitely interesting – not as interesting as the way of a man with a maid, but as interesting as the mating dance of the great horned grebe. In the last fifteen years, the economy has done something that it isn’t supposed to do, according to past history. In the past, the business cycle has given us numerous examples of bubbles that blew up at a certain point. After the bust, there was always an overreaction and a downturn. After the collapse of the market in 1929, for example, there was a tremendous collapse of consumer spending in 1930. There are also long term overreactions. The implosion of the South Sea Bubble in the 1720s set back the stock market in England for fifty years.

Economic history seems to have taken a turn in the 1970s, however. At least since the last big recession in 1991, the Bubbles are now being succeeded by other bubbles. This is made possible by changes in government policy, the increase, by several orders of magnitude, of the cash on hand commanded by the wealthiest five percent, the elevated purchasing power of the consumer, and the interregnum in which the internal American consumer market has been allowed to quietly go on, churning up purchases and debt. So the stock market crash of 2001-2002 is succeeded not by an overreaction, but by the quietest loss of two trillion dollars in history, succeeded by a bubble in the housing market, a targeted bubble, so to speak, which is crashing now just as a bubble in the stock market, which we can fairly date to the intervention of the Fed this summer, takes off. Is this genius or a confidence game?

In the beginning, economics was tugged between Smith’s optimism and Ricardo’s pessimism – between the notion that the market would take the place of the monarchs and prime ministers in that neat little history of the progress of mankind, worked out by the Edinburgh philosophes, on the one hand, and the worry that the winner take all nature of the market, plus Malthusian constraints of our restricted supply of natural resources, would doom us to an increasingly immiserated working class, a pampered and overcompensated upper class, and a world of busts. As Marx saw, quite accurately, the same internal dynamic that drove capitalism to produce affluence drove it to periodically collapse in the midst of its products, helpless to utilize them. Unless this system were overturned, we were inevitably headed to the world of Wells’ Time Traveler, where “the queer little ape-like figures” of the working class Morlocks kept up the world of the haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty like Bloomsbury eternalized – the Eloi, the elect.

Of course that didn’t happen, or hasn’t yet. One could say that the Morlocks have just been moved out of the gated community countries into the ghettoized, but that would still not be quite right – besides which, it would transform Marx’s precise notion of the relations between the working class and the bourgeoisie into almost any two-fold conflict. No, life more abundant was wrung out of the capitalist system by the workers through unionization and, not least, the threat of communism, and it took a long time, and involved the full use of the countervailing powers of the state, which was put in the unaccustomed position of actually operating, seemingly, against the interests of the corporations. This short interval has long closed, but the corporations find it useful to keep up the pretense that the state and private enterprise are matched in deadly combat, with all the other nonsense about our pious preference for a smaller scale of the state. But the long march to abundance took enough time that the system not only assimilated the greater purchasing power of the working class but learned to exploit it. And then, of course, inevitably, manufacturing began, in the U.S., to follow agriculture in the train of obsolete sectors. Or, more precisely, just as the Great depression was about the shrinking of the agricultural dependent population and the final displacement of rural America, the Reagan years – which we still live in – are about the shrinking of the manufacturing sector and the final displacement of Rust belt America.

That leaves us with symbol pusher America. And with a nagging feeling…

The usual case against a bubble is that there is nothing tangible that it attaches to. The land being sold by John Law’s company near the wonderful Mississippi river was a dream; the electric combination of Samuel Insull’s was a fraud. The Enron guys were beyond fraudulent, taking their profits on future sales in 2009 in 1999 and the like. Bubbles are about spreads, rather than tangibility. The conservative in us shrinks back at the edge of the world of spreads, for here there seems to be a great abyss, filled with numbers, with not a product to back them. Thus we get the hoary economic chestnuts, like the one about the Fed ‘taking away the punch bowl’ after a too vigorous elevation of equity prices, and the like. And of course after a bubble, we are supposed to feel some pain. Economists generally will criticize deliberately nurturing a bubble – although of course, to explicitly deliberately nurture a bubble is a contradiction in terms. One has to do it while pretending not to do it. Because there is a residual moralism here warning us against building our dwellings on sand. It is as if the alternative – to let the business cycle do its work, to let the invisible hand smite the evildoers – is favored precisely because we need some hygienic punishment after the orgy. Kraus once said that Germans confounded God with his stagecraft – with thunder. Take away the lightning and you take away God. Some related emotion is involved in treating bubble to bubble economic policy as bound to fail. For if it doesn’t, there is no God. Especially one who laid down the iron laws of economics.

All of which doesn’t mean, by the way, that bubble to bubble economic policy isn’t bound to fail. I can’t help but think this cycle of stock market expansion is not going to go on long, since it seems to utterly discount the signals that we are headed for an economic downturn of some kind. However, spread is king, and the question is: do those economic signals matter? For the wealthiest themselves exist behind one of the greatest bubbles ever. If we think of the tegument of the bubble as consisting of the difference between the wealth commanded by the top five percent and the rest of us, it has now assumed a monumental thickness never seen before. And inside that bubble, the difference between the top one percent and the rest of the wealthy has created a similar bubble. It is hard to believe that any hard times, ever, will poke through that mass. Though surely there is some limit that no bubble pumping by the state can violate, I don’t know theman that can say lo, it is here, or lo, it is there.

…So much for the balance of doom and gloom against the lack of a long run. I’m more interested, frankly, in the social and cultural effects of the age of the spread than whether it is sustainable. In former bubble periods, there have always been those who suspected that this was all a dream. I don’t feel that about this period: people are acclimated to the No Choice, Never a Choice dominant of our time.

As a writer, it used to bug me that I am in such a poor position to see this moment of Americana. I am, after all, mired in the lowest strata of the American economy. Making between 9,000 dollars and 16,000 dollars per year for the last seven has not only destroyed all my savings, and probably prepared me for the most gruesome of futures, since I chose to do this during the years when I should be earning most, but – more importantly – deprived me of the tacit knowledge of how the vast majority of my fellow yahoos live their days. I can bike past the cars, I can imagine the restaurants, the clubbing, the life of consumer products, the day to day in offices, the laptop computers on which one does – something. But that vital displacement which is the writer’s life, daydreaming about other people – I used to think that I had blown it by becoming such a scag. Can I even imagine going home to my McMansion and watching the wall sized tv’s high def pictures of whatever? No.

However, my choices and failures don’t bug me so much any more. First, of course, that lifestyle bores the shit out of me. It bores me the way Emma Bovary’s life bored Flaubert – only in the writing of it could Flaubert find the almost imperceptible nuances that made it a real life for him, and only then could he have mercy. Mercy is the final stage in writing, it is what one blindly tends towards. Second, in the age of the spread, there is a real advantage to living, as the poor necessarily live, among tangibilities. The McMansion and the wall sized tv pale in comparison with the tangibility of, say, the strategic buying of dairy products, waiting for five cent shifts in prices. While I suspect that the demon of intangibility really does haunt the days and days and days of the average householder, who have built their McMansions on spread, the real demon of climate haunts us Morlocks – there is no way to avoid the cold when it is cold if you are walking, or riding a bike. Or hot when it is hot, or rain when it is raining. That this isn’t omitted from life puts one in an oddly advantageous place. Hardy remarks of Tess Durbeyville that she was a Victorian lass, educated by the State, while her mother was still a Jacobin – that in one generation, a two hundred year gap had grown up between them. A clever observation. So what if Tess’ mother had written the book? I can write sci fi just observing what goes on about me, because it goes on in the future – the future being defined by income strata in the U.S.

Now, this isn’t to say that the heroes of nineteenth century novels are unacquainted with spreads. On the contrary, their heroism rises out of the struggle with the spread – Emma with her lenders and Dmitri Karamazov with his; Pip with his benefactor, Nana engulfing the mortgaged estates of syphilitic Second Empire syncophants. When, in the Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes checks his bank account and finds he has 2,000 or so bucks in it, he is declaring his independence from this old, nineteenth century crew. The heroes will now always have money in their bank accounts – Rabbit gets rich, and even crazy Herzog builds a house for himself. However, Rabbit is as dead as Buffalo Bill. Except, of course, for the thirty percent on the bottom. But this may be where the richest stuff is, the phantoms in the street, walking in plain daylight. Phantoms of tangibility.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

excuses (drama queenery)

This seems to be my season for sickness. The last couple of days I have gotten appallingly better acquainted with parts of my biological functioning about which I much prefer to remain in blessed ignorance. Oh well, as my friend Dave likes to say, what doesn’t kill you gives you a good excuse to drink. I do have a theory that last night I was briefly possessed by the devil. Now I know what those poor Loudun possedées were going through. Supposedly the prioress, submitting to her first exorcism, not only did the standard foaming and screeching, but broke two of her back teeth. Well, I’ll never laugh at bootheeled Jack again! So, all notion of writing about Calasso, Reich, and Bela Tarr’s The Outsider has been driven out of my head. Sorry.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Reich, Calasso, and Bela Tarr

LI is truly a sad sack. As we try to find time, in the interstices between our poorly rewarded tasks, for writing our happiness essay, we are discovering a depressingly vast literature that touches on so much we want to say. Not least among which is a gorgeous essay by Roberto Calasso, “The Repulsive Cult of Bonheur’, published in our favorite journal, Common Knowledge, in 2004.

A few months ago, we commented on the movie W., Dusan Makavejev’s film about, among other things, sex-pol, Wilhelm Reich, and the state of orgasmic repression in 70s Yugoslavia. By coincidence, the film was also shown by Kino-Fist, a collective with which one of our favorite bloggers, Infinite Thought, is connected. After reading Calasso’s essay, we feel like revisiting some of those issues.

Calasso begins by quoting from one of Freud’s letters concerning Civilization and its Discontents. Freud, in the letter, talks about a strange serenity – or indifference – that has settled upon him in old age. He is no longer writing with that … surrender, that sense of being swept along by his discoveries. Rather, he has reached a more disengaged point. As Calasso points out, the first section of C and its D. seems to bear out Freud’s point – it is, above all, banal. Yet it builds into a great, mythic insight:

“In Civilization, Freud in fact arrives at a paralyzing conclusion: “What began in relation to the father is completed in relation to the group.” That is: the process of civilization is destined inevitably to increase the sense of guilt to the point where it is intolerable. This is the final perspective that Freud presents in
a flash and then hides. But it’s enough to reveal the grand, dark basis of Civilization: the final, funereal celebration of our founding myth, the nature/culture opposition. Freud keeps faith with that myth to the last, while its consequences push him to the breaking point. On the one hand, he reaffirms a thesis worn out
by use, from the Greeks to us: that the raison d’être of civilization is to defend us from nature. On the other hand, he follows the inflexible course of his own thinking, which has led him to subsume into nature the entire life of the psyche, and so the birth and the persistence of society appear to him fatally as a wound that can never be closed up.”

This sets up Calasso’s great second section, on Reich, which begins – I’m going to quote largely – like this:

“The mystical marriage of Marxism and psychoanalysis, reports on the crimes of the family, the rehabilitation of schizophrenics, the orgasm as panacea: all these themes, which for years have been debated and redebated, pedantically, in feminist weeklies as well as in seminars at the École Normale and Berkeley, were introduced and developed in the twenties by a Galician doctor, a follower of
Freud before becoming a feared apostate of psychoanalysis—Wilhelm Reich.

Prophet, scientist, social critic, cosmic charlatan—Reich was above all a visionary desperately in thrall to a single vision, which he considered the obvious key to the universe. Yet he had one of the most serious defects that a visionary can have: literal-mindedness, a devotion to facts, to the real thing, to quantitative
measurement, to the determining formula. Thus he wasn’t satisfied with introducing an unseemly notion like orgasm into the midst of psychoanalysis. He wasn’t satisfied with stubbornly circumventing psychoanalysis, with the help of some dazzling intuitions that allowed him to elaborate categories—orgasmic impotence, character armor, emotional plague, fear of pleasure, blocked libido— no less indispensable than the classic Freudian ones. He wanted to go beyond, like a buffalo. He capitulated to the belief that the word biology or some crude measuring apparatus would in itself guarantee a more secure approach to the secrets of the world, allowing him to touch, to see, to quantify the phantom,
ungraspable “orgonic energy” that he thought he had discovered.”

I’m going to quote some more from this essay in my next post, in relation to a movie of Bela Tarr’s, The Outsider, from 1979. The Tarr movie is set in a small Hungarian town, among hospital workers, a factory, various pubs, a disco. Everything is garishly shabby, with that special air of Marxist command and control neglect, the result of the spectacularly faulty notion that one can both create and nurture and industrial society and abolish the market. This is a society that has decided to substitute the production of monuments for the production of commodities – and thus, every ugly product, every pathetic car, every motorcycle, even every factory tool, has the ugliness of a monument, of something put out in a park to commemorate an utterly forgettable personage or event, something that accumulates bird shit and the urine of tramps. Like every Tarr movie I’ve seen, this one implacably grinds its way into the viewer’s heart and rips at the indifference accumulated as a necessary buffer from the day to day suicide, the overwhelming evidence that we can only stand our lives if we avoid looking at them too closely. Get close enough, and one’s life explodes in one’s face – every brief flash of joy or happiness exposing a vulnerability that will be mercilessly exploited by others, and that one will regret in tears and loathing on down the years, until one has hardened into the usual happy monster, a character armor without any inhabitant, a plug-in voluptuary with a distressingly limited range of nervous routines.

celebrity news

Pamela Anderson Weds Rick Salomon

On her blog, Anderson called Salomon a friend of 15 years. And they do have at least one scandalous tie – both have appeared in sex tapes: Salomon with Paris Hilton, and Anderson with Lee.

Last month, Anderson, appearing on Ellen DeGeneres's show, revealed that she was dating a new mystery man. "I paid off a poker debt with sexual favors, and I fell in love," Anderson told DeGeneres of her new guy. "It's so romantic. It's romance."

And Salomon gets a thumbs-up from at least one guy in Anderson's life: magician Klok, who told PEOPLE recently, "I like Rick. He's a really nice guy. As long as he's not making another video, I'm ok with him."

Well, in other news, LI got married and then divorced from Pamela Anderson. We were going to get married to Britney Spears after appearing in a sex video with her poodle, Towser, and a troupe of unicyclists, but there was a mix up at the Chapel, which – oops – will soon be appearing in another bootleg sex video which we are doing our best to suppress, LI DOES VEGAS, send $19.99 to GOP Headquarters, Grand Rapids Michigan, 20202, and we will throw in the amazing polycutter, your kitchen can’t be without the polycutter! Britney and I fell deeply in love while we were both coincidentally stopping at a light in Bangor, Maine, although at the time I was involved in selling drugs to Lindsey Lohan in order to marry Jena Bush. Tragically, Jena and I had a falling out after I married Brad Pitt, although that marriage had nothing to do with the notorious Brad Pitt and LI HAVE SEXXX with Penguins sex video I am doing my best to suppress, just send 19.99 to GOP Headquarters, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 20202, and you will also get dirty postcards of Paris Hilton’s dirty underwear, a full set of 36! Trade them with your friends, or use them to write death threats to local stations who broadcast propaganda for murdering the unborn. But as I was saying, the split up with Brad was terrible, for me, my agent, and the thirteen penguins I eventually had to sell to the dog food factory. I ended up, of course, trying to dry out as I hilariously, in retrospect, ran over and killed ten pedestrians while snorting cocaine from the Olson twin’s bottoms – or they said they were the Olson twins. In any case, although I admitted wrongdoing and said it had affected my whole life, I was still put under house arrest for 32 hours, during which time, unfortunately, I ran over 10 other pedestrians but – the upside – that was when Britney and I had the stars in our eyes for each other. Later, of course, I did momentarily mistake her for Madonna, and then for Christine Aguillera, and then for Chris Matthews, and then for Clare Dane’s maid – her blond impalpability making it difficult for me to pick her out of a crowd – but still, until I married and divorced Jena Anderson, I’m sorry, I mean Lori Anderson, or no, Pamela Anderson, Britney was the height and depth my soul could reach. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that she’d been in a sex video with Jena Bush, the collected American Idol lineup of the 2003 season, and a flock of seagulls, which she has been trying to cover up although you can send $19.99 and get an autographed DVD of it for hours of viewing pleasure, send to GOP Headquarters, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 20202. This explains my fistfight with the seagull that ended up as a brawl in which I killed and ate two retirees in Venice California, which I deeply regret. However, as you all know, I was put in prison for three days for this offense, which now that I’ve calmed down – at the time it seemed like injustice city, and they were picking on me - I do accept, especially as I would never have met Country Music Star whatshername – the one with the red hair – due to her incarceration too, and of course we fell madly in love and fucked through the prison bars, on the warden’s couch, and – apparently, I’m so embarrassed – in front of a camera set up in the rec room, all of which I am trying to suppress but that you can see – along with a whole set of whatsername’s country hits! for only 19.99, send to GOP Headquarters, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 20202. And of course the papparazi are now bugging us – really, can’t we be allowed some privacy!? It is almost too much, and I blame that for my split up with whatshername, as she was offended by the sex video that I made with ten of the paparazzi and a Shetland pony.

So, obviously, I've been going through some hard times, but through it all, it is my fan base that has carried me through. I appreciate you all so much! It would be fantastic if we could make a sex video together, although I'd be terribly embarrassed by that and want to suppress it, of course.