“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, May 10, 2008

Off to see the witches




LI is going to fumble around a bit. When I last left Robert Boyle, I was drawing an implicit contrast between his objections to the ordinary or scholastic use of the term “nature” and the use of nature as a touchstone of style in Theophile de Viau.

Since volupté emerges as a way of living in conjunction with the revival of Epicurus, and since that revival was a controversial part of the new learning – a way of introducing atomism into philosophy – “nature” is partnered with volupté among the libertines. In the chain of sememes, if volupté appears, soon nature will appear. Either as a term of reproach – the voluptuary who lives like a beast – or as a term of affirmation. The latter is new, it is modern, it is something that doesn’t yet have a full meaning. It is the promise of a program. Certainly, it leads the esprit fort to a negation – the negation of those things that are against nature, or supernatural. It is this slide towards skepticism that Boyle fears, and that we might not expect him to fear if we have the conventional expectations about the rise of science. He himself not only opposes the court libertines, among whom one can find his brother, but the skeptical attitude towards the supernatural. Though it might seem surprising that a writer who is so thoroughly imbued with the mechanical philosophy would be a believer in witches and ghosts, he not only is, but his belief in mechanism, as we saw, is fully incorporated into his theology, and that theology recognizes God, angels or spirits, and the human soul. Boyle contributed some witch stories to Joseph Glanvill, another broker between the Royal Society’s mechanism and the traditional belief in spirits, who was collecting them for a work defending the witch belief. In a note in his papers, Boyle set himself the standard objections against the commerce with the devil of “silly old women” and replied to it like this:

‘we men understand very little of the nature, costumes, & government of the iIntelligent creatures of the spirituall world: and particularly what concernes the Falne Angells or bad Daemons. And therefore they being themselves invisible to us, and capable of working in wayes that our sences cannot discern; and being Agents of great craft & long experience; tis no wonder that many of their actions, tho never so pollytickly contrived and carried on, should seem irrationall to us: who know so little of their particular inclinations & designes, and the subtil & secret methods in which they carry them on.” [Boyle on atheism, 32]

Theophile recounts his own visit to a possessed woman in Fragments in a very different spirit, having no regard for the Falne Angells, but casting a seigniorial glance at the exchange between the peasant and the priest. I’ll translate that in some future post. But I’ve been thinking that I need to cast my net further, here, since it isn’t only in France and England that Epicurus is re-introduced as an either respectable or dangerous model. In Spain, Francisco de Quevedo, also sought to revive Epicurus. And since Quevedo also was extremely interested in Daemons, I want to write about him. Also, he’s funny. And repulsive to the modern sensibility insofar as he truly finds cruelty funny. In 1990, Malcolm Kevin Read reviewed the recent critical literature on Quevedo and found a lack of it and attributed this to Quevedo’s “copraphilia”.

Quevedo lived about the the same time as Theophile de Viau, although he lived longer than Theophile. And Theophile was certainly aware of his work, as all the great Spanish writers were being read in France at the time. Meanwhile, Quevedo was certainly aware of some French writers, notably Montaigne, whom he quotes as an authority as great as the ancients. The quote comes in Quevedo’s essay on Epicurus. It was through Quevedo’s assimilation of Epicurus to the Stoics that a form of “Christian Epicureanism” was introduced into the Hispanic world, and notably in New Spain, where the vita of Epicurus was read and commented upon in the late 17th century by Siguenza y Gongora and Sor Juana. So we should remember that as Gassendi was writing his commentary on Epicurus, in Spain, Francisco de Quevedo was defending Epicurus from the slander that his notion of pleasure was all bodily. Quite the contrary, according to Quevedo, Epicurus put the whole of pleasure into virtue, and thus was as good as any Stoic – and in fact, a deal better. This unexpected defense of Epicurus, or at least unexpected if you have a stereotypical view of Habsburg Spain as a backwater is not unconnected with what Theophile calls writing a la moderne – Quevedo was, after all, the master of the criminal picaresque, and his El Buscar seems to repel the liberal imagination even now, with its delectation over the odors and struggles of human beings, those animate sausages, their scents, their money, their multiple paths to the gallows or the sick bed. Like Theophile – and in his own way, Boyle – Quevedo was concerned with dismantling what he viewed as an intolerable structure of linguistic obscurity, and sought the means to do it. His assimilation of Epicurus to the Stoics began a very common strategy, one that was defensively held by the erudits libertines, at least for public consumption, up until La Mettrie put paid to it by an all out attack on Stoicism in the eighteenth century. Epicurus seemed to Quevedo to be exemplary precisely because he was neither a Platonic nor an Aristotelian:

Epicurus placed happiness in pleasure and pleasure in virtue, which is such a Stoic doctrine that even the absence of this label does not render it unrecognizable. He freed the attention of his disciples from the stranglehold of the sophists’ dialectic, as if it were a load of rubbish; and if he mentioned dialectic, he did so only because in the classroom it is a large and important part of theology. This rejection of dialectic (by which one should understand that of the sophists), which was the greatest source of pride for other philosophyers, was the reason why Epicurus was loathed and discredited.” [Kray, 246]

Now, this is what I’m going to do. One of Quevedo’s great works is the Suenos, the Visions, which begins with an interview with a possessed beggar. I think I’m going to write a bit about that in my next post on these themes.

His name is Raheem Khalif

... fit for the kill

In the last month, more than 1,000 Iraqis have died in Sadr City, due to assaults mounted by the U.S. and Maliki’s forces. It is the largest assault by the U.S. since 2004 in Fallujah, with the difference that the criminally supine press has pretended it isn’t happening. In 2003, the press simply stenographed lies from the Bush administration. Now, it simply shuffles reality to page A-10, or doesn't report it at all. Although exception is made for the continuing spinning of White House lies – re the entirety of the journalism of Michael Gordon, who is still being printed in the New York Times, even though his latest “scoops” about Iranian supplied weaponry have been laughable, even by Soviet standards. This is from the LA Times:

“A plan to show some alleged Iranian-supplied explosives to journalists last week in Karbala and then destroy them was canceled after the United States realized none of them was from Iran. A U.S. military spokesman attributed the confusion to a misunderstanding that emerged after an Iraqi Army general in Karbala erroneously reported the items were of Iranian origin.

When U.S. explosives experts went to investigate, they discovered they were not Iranian after all.”

It amazes me that they didn’t just go ahead with the show. Gordon would have written the same story, the NYT would lose more readers as the trustworthiness of the paper continues to sink, and the governing class, the second audience for whom such articles are really written, among whom the desire for hostility with Iran (take us to the next pretty war/oh don’t ask why, oh don’t ask why) is palpable, would have been satisfied.

Well, today there was a summary of the American collusion in wholesale murder at retail prices in Iraq – yes, we are talking about Blackwater, the company that kills Iraqis for sport. So, naturally, the FBI investigation of the deaths of the “17” (per the American press) murdered Iraqis has resulted in zip prosecutions. And the State Department has renewed the Blackwater contract for another year.

“Guards for the security company were involved in a shooting in September that left at least 17 Iraqis dead at a Baghdad intersection. Outrage over the killings prompted the Iraqi government to demand Blackwater’s ouster from the country, and led to a criminal investigation by the F.B.I., a series of internal investigations by the State Department and the Pentagon, and high-profile Congressional hearings.
But after an intense public and private lobbying campaign, Blackwater appears to be back to business as usual.”

And then there is this, about Andrew Moonan, the murderer:

“The shooting death of the bodyguard for the Iraqi vice president in 2006 rankled the Iraqi government well before last September’s shooting. An off-duty Blackwater guard who American and Iraqi officials said had been drinking heavily was the sole suspect. The off-duty Blackwater guard, Andrew J. Moonen, who no longer works for the company and who is a former Army paratrooper, is now under criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in Seattle. Although Mr. Moonen has not been charged, his lawyer, Stewart Riley of Seattle, said that he had recently been in contact about the case with prosecutors from the United States Attorney’s Office in Seattle.
People familiar with the case said they believed that the Justice Department had recently concluded that it had found a way to skirt some of the jurisdictional problems that in the past made it difficult to bring charges in American courts for crimes committed by contractors in Iraq.

“I think they may come to a decision on what to do with this case in the next three or four months,” said one person familiar with the matter. Mr. Riley says that Mr. Moonen maintains his innocence in the shooting.”


You will notice that the “bodyguard” is unnamed. Which, in essence, is the killer’s mindset that runs through the American attitude in Iraq.

His name is Raheem Khalif

Friday, May 09, 2008

Our next prez




LI has gotten used to being a no future guy. Yesterday, however, I had one of those magic Obama moments that seem to infuriate those who don’t see anything magical about Obama at all. A friend sent me the upcoming Time cover, which has a great pic of our next prez.

Our next prez. Is that harp music I hear in the background?

It isn’t that the Great Fly’s legacy will vanish as the credits play November 8th. But the very idea of Obama being the U.S. president is so startling, on so many levels – so non-inevitable – that I even had a fleeting sense that the future contained me. Not something I have, well, ever felt about living in these here states.

However, the best post op analysis of what the last five months gave us in terms of a primary is Susan Faludi’s op ed piece today. I like Faludi novelistic sociology – it is in the best tradition of the Chicago Hangin’ out school, plus some symbolic interactionism well hidden from the reader, back in the guts of the mechanism – but I was not convinced by what I read of her post 9/11 thesis. It suffered from an acute lack of knowledge about the South. At the Great Fly’s back are not the captivity stories of Hawthorne’s 17th century New England, but the great dispossession of the Southeast Indian nations of the early nineteenth century. The smokin’ gun of the naughties has been Jacksonian racism, lock stock n barrel. The multiple and multiplying disasters that has brought down on the heads of those who engaged in it are still underappreciated in the Press, that playroom for the post frat Ivy league crowd.

I was surprised, frankly, that Faludi went off track, since her book on White masculinity in the 90s was so beautifully in synch with the time. Reaching back to the themes in that book, Faludi’s piece on why Clinton became a more attractive candidate as she became a shooter and a drinker, as she pandered to the gun totin’ gas guzzler crowd, resonated with my experience – I too, have thought of Clinton as the archetype of the punitive liberal, always looking for that edge where people are experiencing unallowed pleasure – an advocate of censorship from hip hop to computer games, always trying to make us a village – of the damned. And then there was Clinton the evil, the enabler of our run in Iraq. But the Clinton that sprang free and boxed Obama in the primaries was a much better figure all the way around. She had the humility of a great actress – she no longer worried about her ‘position’ or role, but put on personas as needed. The American presidential election, even now, as we watch the governing class transform itself into a kleptocracy, has its customs, one of which is that the candidates must ritually humiliate themselves. For a few decades after WWII, when decorum seized the elite, the process of humiliation was, to a degree, stifled. And of course the Republicans hate that whole humiliation thing – they can dish it out, but they can’t take it. However, the GOP long ago let the genie out of the bottle, and I think that even Republican candidates – as Mitt Romney’s agony showed – are now required to prostrate themselves.

One can go into the process with a pained look on one’s face, like Kerry, or one can lose all inhibitions, like Clinton. Obama supposed ‘elitism’ is all about his refusal to prostrate himself. Obama is right – he is not an actor, like Clinton, and racial codes in this country leave him little choice than to rely on his essential dignity. The thing is, he has essential dignity. He has essential dignity. My God. It is a rare trait. So, if I were Obama, I would stock up on the collected films of Laurence Olivier to figure out how to maximize his own actor’s persona. (although perhaps not this picture) Clinton obviously figured out that Joan Crawford was her l’wa – who knows what will come out of her mouth next? Some confession that she always thought George Wallace was cute? While Obama can’t and shouldn’t go so low, I think he could use Olivier’s sense of balance for the part he is about to play in this campaign against the rapidly decaying McCain.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

killing a mouseketeer for the good of the state

"I'm Mrs. Lifestyles of the rich and famous
(You want a piece of me)
I'm Mrs. Oh my God that Britney's Shameless"


The news stories about Britney are increasingly grim – as those of you who faithfully follow People, Us, and the National Star know quite well. As you’ll remember, the hardest working mousketeer has been prosecuted for not seeing “the harm in working and being a mama”. Quite right, but as soon as she revolted, the machinery of oppression came into play, and she was publicly kidnapped. First act: her children were wrenched from her when she showed them some of the fun side of life (which involved the kind of minor pecadillos – not using the safety seat, etc. - that drive the denizens of the gated community crazy, for there is nothing the G.C. believes more than cocooning its brats in an environment of permanent and ruthlessly enforced invulnerability, hence the monstrous SUV, the soccer mom car par excellence, hence the crammed prisons of these here States, hence the insatiable borrowing to keep a country whose main manufacture is serial war afloat), and were handed over to her talentless and Tartufian ex. The court system, that cat’s paw of patriarchy, did its part to shame and injure Britney just as she was showing – finally – some rock n roll promise. Second act: after her kids are kidnapped, she is kidnapped – in this case, by her parents, who are given the power to control this twenty eight year olds assets before she pisses them away – a process that she could do for the next forty years and never reach the bottom of her cash pile. In the timeless fashion of stardom, when the star threatens the money machine, the star is plunged into a psych ward, then dried out by the use of available patriarchal agents, and finally made abject and humble by the same media that has eagerly profited by their much photographed fall. This isn’t hypocrisy, it is factory work, it is plucking the chickens before you cut them up and plasticwrap them. Which of course happened to Brit. No more flashing her pussy, no more harmless Vegas pranks.

Well, the symbol of everything naughties is succumbing to the pressure, as it was obvious from the get go that she would. This terribly sad dispatch from the Associated Press makes LI, for one, itch to start an Amnesty International campaign: surely Britney is being held hostage by the worst aspects of capitalism in the era of the Great Fly:

“Britney Spears will be allowed expanded visits with her two young sons following a low-key child-custody hearing in Los Angeles.

Commissioner Scott Gordon at the Los Angeles Superior Court expanded her visitation rights in a move which will allow Spears to see her children for longer periods, while her former husband Kevin Federline retains custody.

Mr Gordon closed the hearing to reporters moments after the two stars were sworn in following a request by Spears' lawyer Stacy Phillips.

The 26-year-old pop star's appearance at the hearing, which was held behind closed doors, was a far cry from the spectacle of previous appearances.
A sombre Spears, wearing a brown polka-dot dress and white sweater, arrived early for the hearing flanked by her parents and lawyers.

Dozens of people witnessed Spears' courthouse arrival as a front-seat passenger in a white Land Rover, but it did not compare to the circus that surrounded the troubled pop star's January trip to the courthouse, when she arrived in a black minidress and gold platform shoes, then left before the hearing began.
Federline, 30, was granted custody of the couple's two children - two-year-old Sean Preston and one-year-old Jayden James - at that hearing.

The court heard police were called to Spears' home after she refused to relinquish one of the boys to a Federline bodyguard.

During a break in proceedings, Spears left the courtroom walking hand-in-hand with lawyer Blair Berk to a lift before returning minutes later.
Outside court, Mark Vincent Kaplan, Federline's lawyer, said the longer visits were "recognition of the progress that has been made". Spears smiled briefly but did not address questions as she left the hearing.”

Ah, the prisoner smiles briefly to the unctuous photographers, may they burn in hell. This is what happens when, in a flash of good sense, she refused to turn her children over to the ex’s hired thugs. Oh, on this ruin they will no doubt build somemoney making structure, but remember – a Mouseketeer was sacrificed to build the foundation.
Although I am hoping she takes the opportunity afforded by the court to flee somewhere. I’d recommend Sweden.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

disgusting fancy




Among the scholars who are doing the history of science outside of the Whiggish framework - the latter referring, of course, to Herbert Butterworth’s famous phase about the framework that sees the history of science as essentially a progress - Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s The Leviathan and the Air Pump is one of the most cited texts. It focuses on the New Learning in 17th century England, which was in many ways an extension of the Baconian experimental impulse. Robert Boyle was not only the premier experimenter, but, more than Bacon, the natural philosopher who set the rules for experimentation.

One of Shapin and Schaffer’s ideas is that the experimental method, depending on witnesses for its veracity, evolves a prose style of witness. Shapin and Schaffer point to Thomas Sprat’s injunctions about the proper mode of representation in his history of the Royal Society – which was, in effect, also a polemic on behalf of the society. Sprat enumerates the inveterate injury done by rhetorical ornament, which was at first the “admirable instruments in the hands of Wise Men” but now have turned disgusting – “They make the Fancy disgust the best things, if they come sound and unadorn’d; they are in open defiance against Reason, professing not to hold much correspondence with that, but with its Slaves, the Passions; they give the mind a motion too changeable and bewitching to consist with right practice.” In fact, as Sprat enumerates the faults of the ornate style, he himself falls into a Passion – “For now I am warmed with this just Anger” – but, apparently, this Slave is true to reason, rather than its betrayer. And although Sprat sees the ornaments of rhetoric as being almost beyond reform, he does make a very Protestant recommendation: “They have therefore been most rigorous in putting in execution the only Remedy that can be found for this extravagance, and that has been a constant Resolution to reject all amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity and shortness, when men deliver’d so many things almost in an equal number of words. They have exacted from all their members a close, naked, natural way of speaking, positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness, bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness as they can, and preferring the language of Artizans, Countrymen, and Merchants before that of Wits or Scholars.” [Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, II,117-118]

Shapin has written a biographical sketch of Boyle that picks at what he was like as a person – and how one would, at this distance, ever found out. Born of a rich, rapacious pioneer of the land grab game in Ireland, an ennobled Elizabethan nabob who at one point might have been the richest man in the Kingdom, Boyle’s father despised Ireland – which was the source of his wealth – yet had his children taught Gaelic. Boyle himself certainly retained in his own voice the Irish English intonation, one that his tutors at Eton never could extinguish. More than that, Boyle he was a stutterer. According to his own account, Boyle picked up the stuttering habit when he was a boy from mocking the speech of others. Shapin imagines this might be Boyle mocking the Irish English of others.

While his elder brother was one of the great rakes at Charles II’s court, Boyle was an Anglican of a species now long extinct – an enthusiastic Anglican. Recent work on Boyle has emphasized this aspect of his intellectual character. While maintaining a corpuscular philosophy and advocating for the experimental method, Boyle wrapped these concerns in a general world view that allowed him to attack both Catholics and atheists for a wrongheaded view of God – both, in his opinion, being all too eager to pull God into his creation, and thus fumbling the very root of divinity: God’s exteriority to the world. It is that exteriority that allows God to be a supreme chooser – he can chose the way the world will be because he is not caught within it.

Boyle was an Anglican and directed his Free Enquiry, as well as his other philosophical and theological treatises, against both the Catholics and the ‘atheists” – the latter comprehending all who would make God immanent in nature, instead of standing outside it. But his brothers, as Shapin points out, were notorious Restoration rakes – the very type to be attracted to the libertine philosophy.

While the language of natural philosophy, for Sprat, is going to cast off the Wit’s devious metaphors and the disgusting fancies of the scholar in order to embrace the language of the artisan, Boyle, who was more noble than Merchant, had his own problems with taking the language of the vulgar for the instrument of the wisdom. For where, after all, are the vulgar getting their notions? Are they educated witnesses? Is there any way to escape ambiguity – which is, in its way, as disgusting as metaphor, insofar as it is not the plain way to truth:

“I have often look’d upon it as an unhappy thing, and prejudicial both to philosophy and physic, that the word nature hath been so frequently, and yet so unskillfully employ’d, by all sorts of men. For the very great ambiguity of this term, and the promiscuous use made of it, without sufficiently attending to its different significations, render many of the expressions wherein ‘tis employed, either unintelligible, improper or false. I, therefore, heartily wish, that philosophers,m and other leading me, would, by common consent, introduce some more significant, and less ambiguous terms and expressions, in the room of the licentious word nature; and the forms of speech that depend on it: or at least decline the use of it, as much as conveniently they can…”

Boyle then gives 8 rules for avoiding the word: 1. Use the word God for natura naturans; 2. use the word essence, or quiddity (tho a barbarous term); 3 “If what is meant by the word nature” is what ‘belongs to a living creature at its nativity” – say, “the animal is born so” – or say that a thing has been generated such. 4. for internal motion – say that the body moves spontaneously; 5. use – “the settled course of things”; 6 for the “aggregate of powers belonging to a body” use constitution, temper, mechanism or complex of the essential properties or qualities; 7. when used for universe, use the word world, or universe; and 8. “If, instead of using the word nature, taken for either a goddess, or a kind of semi-deity; we wholly reject, or very seldom employ it.”

With those hand rules to hand, Boyle can then confidently enter into the thickets of Aristotelianism, before doing battle with the vulgar.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

the vulgar nature of Nature

In 1686, Robert Boyle published the “Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Receiv’d Notion of Nature”. Michael Hunter and Edward Davis make the claim that this is one of the essential texts of the Scientific Revolution. In their essay on the making of the text, Hunter and Davis quote one of Boyle’s “protégés”, Scottish physician David Abercromby, who wrote: I therefore look upon this work as the new system of a new philosophy which fundamentally overthrows the foundation – namely, Nature – of all views hitherto held in philosophical matters.” [219] Others, of course, have cast doubt on the very idea that there was a Scientific Revolution. Myself, I prefer the term New Learning. Certainly there was an institutional revolution – no longer were the virtuosi independent players, like wandering minstrels and alchemists. The Universities were still stacked with Aristotelians and bloodletters, and the real action shifted to the Royal Society, or the semi Royal academies in France (although in France, this was supplemented by a correspondence culture which formally associated savants which doesn’t have a parallel in England).

We can go all the way back to the Cratylus to find distinctions being made between speakers of the same language. Among the humanists, the distinction between learned speech and vulgar speech was simply a reality – learning was published in Latin – or it referred to an occult jargon that supposedly could be attributed to traditions that went back to antiquity. Antiquity was the truthmaker, to use a fashionable term from contemporary analytic philosophy. But as the New Learning was about casting off the shackles of antique learning, this distinction would no longer do (although, of course, I am working with clear cut lines that were, in actuality, less clear cut than one could tell from the bravado of New Learning’s sages. Respect for the ancients was not so easily overcome as all that).

So when Boyle writes his enquiry, we are faced with a new set of coordinates for separating ordinary speech from “philosophical” speech. Since Boyle was, on his odd days, a corpuscularian, and a round promoter of the Royal society, one might think that he had a sneaking affection for Gassendi’s re-discovery of atomism. In fact, it is the use of ‘nature’ in the Epicurean sense – the vulgar chatter of the esprits forts – against which Boyle shoots many of his arrows.

As pointed out in my post on the total social fact, inquiry into such phenomena must cut across different discursive spheres. Certainly those spheres are more widely separate in modern societies than they are in early modern ones, not to speak of the premoderns. But the reasons for the drifting apart of the divisions of intellectual labor are, themselves, total social facts. In the seventeenth century, the use of the word ‘nature’ in the Universities, in the circles of the libertines, in churches and among the natural philosophers of the new learning was more closely tied together than, for instance, is the use of the word matter today among the vulgar and the physicists – or among economists and sociologists. Boyle’s discussion of ‘nature’, first as used by Aristotle, then as used by the natural philosopher, then as used by the vulgar, exists on the same conceptual plane – or so I would claim – as Theophile’s use of nature in the 1620s. Boyle’s discussion is an attempt to separate those planes, however, within the limits that religion allowed.

So I want to contrast two seemingly disparate texts: Theophile’s Fragments d’un histoire comique – Fragments of a funny story – and Boyle’s text.

PS - this is how Theophile's "novel" begins:

“The ordinary elegance of our writers are approximated in these terms:

“The Aurora, all gold and azure, hung with pearls and rubies, appeared at the gates of the Orient: the stars, shining out with the brightest light, let their pallor be effaced and became, little by little, the color of the sky; animals on the hunt returned to the woods and men to their work; the silence gave place to noise, and the shadows to light…”

And all the rest that the vanity of the makers of books make such a fanfare with, to the applause of an ignorant public.

A discourse must be firm, the meaning in it must be easy and natural, the language expressive and signifying: affections are only softness and artifice, which is never found without effort and confusion. Those petty thefts that are called the imitation of ancient authors, it must be said, are not in our manner. You have to write a la moderne; Demosthenes and Virgil didn’t write in our time, and we can’t write in their century; their books, when they made them, were new, and every day, we make old ones. The invocation of the Muses, for example, of these pagans is profane and ridiculous for us. Ronsard, for the vigor of his mind, and the bareness of his imagination, has a thousand things comparable to the magnificence of the ancient Greeks and Latins, and resembled them better than when he wanted to translate them, and when he pleased himself with counterfeiting them as in that patarcan Cytherea, of the Tymbrean tripod. It seems that he wanted to render himself unknown in order to appear learned, and that he affects the false reputation of a new and bold writer. In these foreign terms, he is unintelligible for a Frenchman; these extravagances only disgust the scholar and confuse the feeble. One calls this fashion of usurping obscure and improper terms a barbarism and crudity, the other pedantry and smugness. For me, I believe that it is Ronsard’s respect and passion for the ancients that made him think that everything that came from them was excellent and to try to glorify himself by imitating them in everything. I know that a prelate, a man of goodness, is imitable by everyone. It is necessary to be chaste like him, charitable and scholarly, if you can. But a courtesan, to imitate his virtue, shouldn’t take up either his style of living nor his dress. One must, like Homer, describe well, but not with his terms nor by his epithets. One should write as he wrote, but not what he wrote. It is a laudable act of devotion, worthy of a beautiful soul to invoke at the beginning of a work the sovereign powers; but the Christians don’t have to do with Apollo nor the Muses, and our verse today, which is not sung on the lyre, shouldn’t be called lyric, no more than the other should be called heroic, because we do not live in the era of heros, and all these monkey sees are neither pleasant nor profitable to the understanding. It is true that the disgust with these superfluities have given birth to another of our vices: for the feeble spirits who the beginning of pilfering has thrown into the métier of the poets, by the discretion they show in avoiding the extreme stereotypes [resdites], already used up by so many centuries, find themselves in a great sterility, and, not being strong enough or clever enough to take advantage of the objects that present themselves to the imagination, believe there is nothing more in poetry than prose matter, and are persuaded that a figure is nothing, and a metaphor, an extravagance. But, as I said, it is day. Thus, these digressions please me, I let my fantasy go, and I do not turn away my pen from whatever thought presents itself. I am conducting an interruptable, diverse conversation here, and not an exact lesson or an oration by the book. I am not scholarly enough nor ambitious enough to try. My book does not claim to oblige the reader, for its design is not that it be read to oblige me and, since it is permitted for him to blame me, permit me to displease him.”

The Great Fly speaks through us all

Straight from the American Id to your heart – a slogan you can take to the bank!

“To manage the slowdown, Las Vegas is revving up an overseas marketing campaign, and in the United States, it is pitching spontaneous Vegas escapes. “Do it without thinking!” says one television spot.


Isn’t that what the naughties have been all about?
The Great Fly speaks through us all.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Anti-Newtonian times

One of the most ignored sentences in all of science is found in Newton’s Principia, in which he wrote: hypotheses non fingo. Or, I don’t make hypotheses. Philosophy of science, from Newton’s time onward, has pretended that Newton was Descartes, and that he used the Hypothico-Deductive method – and even, in the time of Popper, that science simply rids itself of induction. Of course, Newton was strongly inductionist, seeing himself as Bacon’s successor there, believing that when the numbers finally came out in your description of natural phenomena, you could get rid of the hypothesis; he was not a logick chopper, no Aristotelian he; and was very finicky about dividing conjecture from what he thought was law (in the draft of the Principia, he changed the term hypothesis of motion into law of motion). Newton was entirely consistent in this. When corresponding about his color theory with Pardies, he wrote: “… it is to be observed that the doctrine which I explained concerning concerning refraction and colours, consists only in certain properties of light, without regarding any hypotheses by which those properties might be explained. For the best and safest method of philosophizing seems to be, first to enquire diligently into the properties of things, and to establish those properties by experiments and then to proceed more slowly to hypotheses for the explanation of them. For hypotheses should be employed only in explaining the properties of things, but not assumed in determining them; unless so far as they may furnish experiments. For if the possibility of hypotheses is to be the test of the truth and reality of things, I see not how certainty can be obtained in any science; since numerous hypotheses may be devised, which shall seem to overcome new difficulties.”

Newton succinctly outlines the shape and tenor of economics in that last sentence.
LI was oddly reminded of Newton by the mood and reporting of economic news last week. It was perhaps the most absurd misreporting of any phenomena we have seen since April and May 2003, when the reporting from Iraq was pitched on an equally absurd plane. Indeed, the two events are linked. In both, the mathematics differed wildly from the reporting. In 2003, the mathematics involved an absurdly understaffed occupying force; absurd estimates, or non-estimates, of the cost of the occupation; absurd estimates of the Iraqi “contribution” thereto; absurd underestimates, or non-estimates, of re-building the infrastructure. All of which sank into the background as the strummers of euphoria – reporters, spinners, the usual cast of highly paid liars – created a thick text of delusions. A different set of highly paid liars, but a branch of the same general establishment, looked at the numbers churned out last week by the Executive branch and became positively giddy. Why, there was 0.6 percent growth in the GDP in the first quarter! And employment came roaring back to the extend that there was only a drop of 20,000 jobs in April! And inflation has been nipped in the bud by, well, by magic!

One has only to refer to the numbers to see how insane, and how malicious, this chatter is. An 0.6 percent growth rate that is prompted almost wholly by a business inventory buildup would usually not be good news. An inventory buildup is usually announced as: unsold goods. Which leads to the question of why the doggies aren’t eating their dog food. Which would lead one to plunge into other dimensions of the numbers put out by the Commerce department – the drop in earnings; the rising interest rates for credit cards, auto loans, student loans and mortgages, even as the Fed has put a huge pipeline between the money it has borrowed at one rate and the banks that it loans to at a cheaper rate – which is a way of simply giving the banks money, but pretending not to. This is the largest and quickest government bailout of the wealthy in history. It is also one of the most underreported – where is the headline reading: Government gives Hedge Funds unlimited access to Tax Dollars? Those stories, of course, are re-written so that they are properly oblique, and put in the business section, to be read by those in the know. At the same time that we read the financial crisis is over, we also read that the Fed’s new policy is to accept almost anything for collateral – auto loans, student loans. The absurdity of this policy is in stark contrast with the reporting on individuals making deals with lending companies to refinance their houses. There, of course, it is all about keeping up, with the finest and most Tartuffian references to integrity and morality, the need to pay back, and fucking promptly. I enjoy the outraged comments of householders when these stories appear in the Post – they attach to some errant payer, some holder of two mortgages and a downsized position, and compare life stories – their own of rectitude and all the Prot virtues, the errant payer’s one of Roman debauchery on an undeserved credit line. While, all the while, it is the banks, the financial institutions, the “equity management” companies who own the mortgages who are getting the real deal. And not for chump change. It is important, in trying times in the great era of Inequality, to keep the lens on the small farsidish adventures of the ne’erdowells, and away from the biggest giveaway in U.S. history – except to greet Bernanke as a genius for having produced conditions in which excess inventory will fight excess dollars in the world championship of peekaboo inflation.

The numbers point to numbers down the road that will not be euphoric – and will be underreported as usual, although of course you will register them in your stomach, your routines, in the grocery line, in the mail from the power company. Looking at the employment numbers, for instance, one can venture a cautious, Newtonian hypothesis – a midstream thing, used to explain properties, not model them – that the revision of the numbers will add an extra sixty thousand or more to the unemployed number. Of course, Wall Street quants know this. But they also know that it is best not to know it, and – as Newton points out – if you use hypotheses to mold your data, why, you can come up with any picture you want. We are living, truly, in anti-Newtonian times, and in those times, the truth comes out from the tv marionettes only by accident. So LI was pleased that a truth actually came out of the mouth of Hilary Clinton – which must have surprised both the truth and Hilary – when she said, this weekend: “Elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantages the vast majority of Americans.”

She should know, since her husband makes his whole and entire living being paid to consult with elite opinion to keep that project going.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

the total social fact



Levi Strauss’s introduction to Mauss’s collected works contained an important reflection on one of Mauss’s fundamental theoretical innovations: the notion of a “total social fact.” Since LI’s work in progress on happiness deals with one such ‘total social fact’, the emotional customs that are accepted in a given community or society; and since we have been thinking of how these customs have changed as the market-based industrial system became dominant in Western Europe and the U.S. over the 18th and 19th century, we thought a coupla posts on Levi Strauss and Mauss would not only rhyme, but be timely. Our duel with LCC turned us on to Derrida’s persistent attempt to interrogate the semantic force of the “material” in dialectical materialism – which frames his patient unwinding of Marx’s metaphoric of specters, spooks and spirits. It is here that two total social facts overlap: one is the capitalist rationality of constant movement – of commodities, populations, and technologies - governed by the overarching principle that all agents seek pleasure, and all pleasure is defined by an increase of goods; the other is an older social fact, in which reciprocities are not, in fact, governed by the pleasure principle, but by a construct founded on what an anthropologist have called the sacred, defined by the supposed connection between a worldly temporal power – the sovereign - and the cosmic principle(s) that makes for life. The latter, of course, became the hallmark of the savage in the 18th century, but that savagery was never exorcized by capitalist rationality, which instead chose to either ignore its continued existence within the social whole, under the pretense that it existed in the interstices, or to reduce it – demystify it – as, indeed, the Savage’s form of rational choice. Of course, the savage in this one sided dialogue has no voice in the matter – as Derrida shows, Marx and his opponents all agree on the project of doing away with superstition – and yet, if the savage did have a voice, he or she would recognize pleasure, or the utilitarian’s happiness, to be, indeed, the kind of spirit, or spectre, or mana, whose infinite permutations are embodied in the savage’s cosmology, with all the marks of such a character – the impossibility of anchoring it to one place in the system, the rituals of supplementation that endlessly attempt to make up for its failure, and the curiously rigid theology that has grown up around defining it to a hair’s breadth without ever really explaining it at all – it exists in that breathless space between the self-evident and the impossible. In Marx’s work, the polemical and political texts pull away from the economic work just at this point. To put it simply, the revolutionary moment, which is the moment at which the alienation produced in the capitalist system reaches a saturation point in which it bursts asunder all the social bonds, is impossible to reconcile with the totalizing system of ‘material interests’ that are outlined in the economic work. They work in two different frameworks.

Well, this is a thing to return to later. Now, here, out of the kindness of LI’s heart, is a translation of the key grafs in Levi Strauss’s description of the total social fact.

“One could even say that it [the notion of the total social fact] commands them [Mauss’s preoccupations] since, like them but in a more inclusive and systematic fashion, the notion proceeds with the same care to define social reality; but: to define the social as the reality. Now, the social is not real except in as much as it is integrated into a system, and here we find the first aspect of the notion of the total fact: “After having forcibly a little too much divided and abstracted the social, it is necessary for sociologists to attempt to recompose it in its entirety.” But the total fact does not succeed in being such by the simple reintegration of discontinuous aspects: familial, technical, economic, juridical, religious, under whichever one of which one could be tempted to apprehend it exclusively. It is necessary as well that it is incarnated in an individual experience, and this from two different points of view: firstly in a individual history that permits to ‘observe the conduct of total beings, and not divided into functions”[facultés]; next in what we would love to call (in rediscovering the archaic sense of a term whose application in the present case is evident) an anthropology, that is to say, a system of interpretation giving account simultaneously of what is physical, physiological, psychic and sociological about all the conduits [toutes les conduits] : “The study alone of this fragment of our life which is our life in society is not sufficient.”

The total social fact thus presents itself with a three dimensional character: it must make coincide the literal sociological dimension with its multiple synchronic aspects; the historical dimension, or the diachronic; and at last the physio-psychological dimension. Thus, it is only with individuals that this triple relationship can take place. If one is attached to this “study of the concrete which is complete”, one must necessarily perceive that “what is true is not the prayer or the law, but the Melanesian of such and such an island, Rome, Athens.”

About which, more in a post to come.