“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, December 06, 2008

rogerology day!

We all have read our Nietzsche, and know that it is better not have been born. Who doesn’t feel pressing in, year after year, the serpent’s promise of death to Eve – that was the real temptation. The only way to escape from the life sentence of paradise. But in spite of the death drive, LI is still ticking away, with all the stupidity of a watch set to the wrong time. The watch cannot reach out and set itself straight – birthdays are a reminder that people can’t do that either, although of course the mechanism in some of us makes us repeat the vain gesture, over and over again.

It is my birthday today.

Here’s my song for today: Ponderosa

Friday, December 05, 2008

the origin of free love: I

We had felt that perhaps we were wrong inside, but we had never imagined it so bad – D.H Lawrence

These are some facts about Therese Huber between 19 and 25.

She was born in Gottingen, the daughter of a well known professor, Christian Gottlob Heyne, and Therese Heyne, born Weiss, in May, 1764. She was thus a little older than the revolutionary generation, those born in the 1770s.

According to Therese Huber’s correspondence, her first memories were of her mother – of her mother being ill. This was when she was three. “I was never my Mother’s favorite, certainly not, I was ugly, bulky and probably never brilliant. Until my thirteenth year, I don’t remember anybody ever tell me I had a mind or that I was droll.” Of her mother she says, further, that she was “no housewife, we were raised in filth and disorder.” Her earliest memories were of her stained clothing. Moreover, her mother had “a lover until she died, almost in her forty fifth year.” Her lover lived in the house. He was a music student by the name of Forkel.
Therese always had the fantasy that she had been adopted.

Therese Huber later wrote about her first husband, Georg Forster: “He had the fortune of unpretty men, that women had to come to meet him half way, which, with his very soft heart, always vouchsafed the joy of a very intense friendship.”

At eighteen, Therese was mad to get out of her house and the town of Gottingen. By this time, she had a stepmother. Georg Forster, her father’s friend, though much older than her, promised to get her out of the house. So she accepted his proposal for marriage in early 1784.. He promptly took off for Vilnius, where he’d been promised a position. He was gone for eighteen months.

Therese promptly set out for Gotha to care for a sick friend, Auguste Schneider, the mistress of the Baron of Gotha. In a letter, Therese wrote a friend that “people’s image of me as a coquette, the girl in a novel, had begun to disappear, and one sees only the girl of reason, whose lively foolishness is forgiveable on account of her good heart.” (41) But if she thought of herself, now, as calming down and assuming the dignity of the betrothed woman, she found, on her return to Gottingen, that things were difficult for a headstrong girl whose older, ugly fiance was in Vilnius. She was surrounded by admirers in her father’s house, while her father remained at his desk and her stepmother remained unconcerned – a situation that Henry James would have known what to do with. It was now that she encountered a man, FLM Meyer, who proved to be, as her biographer Geiger puts it, ‘fateful’ – misfortunate - to her. Later she wrote a friend that “Meyer led or ruled me, for he took my childish virginity in thought and deed.”

Meyer was a well known writer, enjoyed by Herder’s literary public . He was, according to Geiger, ‘shamelesslessly” egotistical. And he couldn’t do without women. He moved in that Enlightenment society under the motto that he couldn’t, ‘for the sake of one woman, be untrue to the whole sex.”
At the same time there was a friend. Henry James, too, would have given Therese the ambiguous friend. This friend was the most ambiguous of the Romantic divas, Therese’s “evil spirit”, according to her biographer, Ludwig Geiger, Karoline Michaelis. Geiger describes her as “sensuous and without morals already as a girl.” Over her lifetime, Karoline was married thrice, once to a man named Boehmer, then, when he died, to August Schlegel – this marriage was partly because she’d been banned for revolutionary activities in Gottingen when it was occupied by the French, and partly because she’d scandalized the town by having a child as the result of an affair with a French soldier - and then finally, in Jena, marrying Schelling. According to Geiger, this woman urged Therese to marry Forster, who she – Karoline – knew Therese didn’t love – out of jealousy. When Karoline and Schelling were living together in Jena, Hegel came to stay with them for a year. He knew the two well. When she died, he wrote a letter to a friend, expressing his relief and joy that she was gone. She had an effect on people.

In 1785, Forster came back from Vilnius. He then “committed out of weakness or goodness or blindness one of the unbelievable errors of his error strewn life: instead of standing apart from the third man [Meyer], coolly, peacefully, with the intention and the hope of driving the memory of his intruder gradually out of the heart of his bride … he entered into the intoxicated state of friendship, full of illusions, that filled both of them. Soon he was using the brotherly ‘du’ on the newcomer and the secret lover; Meyer became his “Assad”, he appeared as a member of the “trinity” in the letters to theological friends. “Forster was more enthusiastic than both of us,” Therese wrote 20 years later, “had us all swear eternal love, and never asked for a kiss from me that I should not also offer Meyer.” [44]

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Mr. Summers, let me refer you to Chapter 13: the whiteness of the whale

In the election of 1910, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. The economy still hadn’t recovered from the bust of 1907. The original impetus for the progressive legislation that had received support and scorn in equal measure from Teddy Roosevelt – America’s most bipolar president – had not died out, which is why President Taft couldn’t block the amendment to the Constitution instituting a federal income tax. Unfortunately, the move to force corporations to incorporate federally, instead of in the states, failed.

There was, back in those days, a burning issue that has flamed out so much since that the very word brings an eery blank to the mind: overcapitalization. The reason this figured so heavily as a scare word among the progressives is that the era from the turn of the century to the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission, in 1914 – which is generally taken to bookend the progressive moment – saw the instantiation of what Lawrence Mitchell, in The Speculation Economy, claims is the founding moment of modern American capitalism: the subjugation of industry to finance. This was a moment that expressed itself on several fronts – for instance, the Courts finally cleared up the confusion about how property law applied to corporations – creating a new form of property, defined by John Commons this way: [the old common law definition] … is Property, the other is Business. The one is property in the sense of Things owned, the other is property in the sense of exchange-value of things. One is physical objects, the other is marketable assets.” [quoted by Sklar, page 50]

One of the results of this legal change, or rather, one of the reasons it came about, was that the notion of a corporation as a body issuing stock was changing. And that change brought up the charge of overcapitalization – that a corporation, instead of finding its raison d’etre in using its assets to produce a good or service on which it made a profit, was now an entity wrapped up entirely in the market for its stocks.

In 1911, a bill was voted through the House of Representatives and narrowly turned down in the Senate that would have smashed this legal structure. S. 232 built on legislative ideas already crafted during Roosevelt’s term (remember, Roosevelt was in the wings in 1911, and would run in 1912, thus ruining Taft’s chance at a second term). S. 232 would not only have required federal incorporation of all interstate businesses. Here’s Mitchell’s description of it:

“It would have replaced traditional state corporate finance law by preventing companies from issuing “new stock” for more than the cash value of their assets, addressing both traditional antitrust concerns and newer worries about the stability of the stock market by preventing overcapitalization. But it would have done much more.

S. 232 was designed to restore industry to its primary role in American business, subjugating finance to its service. It would have directed the proceeds of securities issues to industrial progress by preventing corporations from issuing stock except “for the purpose of enlarging or extending the business of such corporation or for improvements or betterments”, and only with the permission of the Secretary of Commerce and Labor. Corporations would only be permitted to issue stock to finance revenue-generating industrial activities rather than finance the ambitions of sellers and promoters. … S. 232 would have restored the industrial business model to American corporate capitalism and prevented the spread of the finance combination from continuing it dominance of American industry.” (137) In Sklar’s account of the Roosevelt era draft, ‘whenever the amount of outstanding stock should exceed the value of assets, the secretary would require the corporation to call in all staock and issue new stock in lieu thereof in an amount not exceeding the value of assets, and each stockholder would be required to surrender the old stock and receive the new issue in an amount proportionate to the old holdings.”

This may well be the most radical legislation every considered by Congress. Think of it – the stock market as we know it today simply wouldn’t exist. Instead of being a legal fiction, the stock holders would literally own the company, and their profits would be limited to the profits of the company. The price to earnings index would level out so that the stock price would only hover marginally above earnings.

Needless to say, America did not go down this path. In fact, this path of needles seems to have been so traumatic an adventure that it has been thoroughly forgotten. We accept the equities market as it is as an expression of American capitalism. It is really an expression of changes in the physiology of American capitalism that came about during this era – almost overnight, in Mitchell’s view.

The last couple of weeks have both deepened the desperate prospects for the economy and shortened the dimension of changes we are supposed to envision for that economy. Obama’s bright old things – the Geithner/Summers/Romer crewe – have every intellectual investment in how things used to be. Like, two years ago. Why not? They feel themselves to be at the very least master carpenters in the building of the Great Moderation. LI’s stand is that the system – the mangle of inequality – is collapsing, and our vision is that this collapse will be mortal – but this might just be the optimist in us, Jonah’s kindly side, looking forward to Ninevah’s conversion. We think that crewe would certainly resist the radical remedies of 1911. Roosevelt would now be considered somewhat left of Chomsky. However, we have to have broader vistas in order to think about what is happening here. This is one of the reasons that LI considers the strongest charge against Summers to be that he doesn’t read literary novels. He should be questioned on this. The whole board of Economic Advisors should stock up on the great novels – we’d suggest, among others, Moby Dick and J.R. It is the lack of imagination of the self-aggrandizer set that actually produced this mess. At the bottom of the deaths of so much over the last eight years – the death of Iraqis, the death of American money, etc. – is a mortal lack of poetry.

LI, doing our part, will end with another notice from Ludwig Hohl.

“The alteration of the object to be tested through the person, the appearance of the tester, is also very important in the investigation of human situations. One goes to visit the unhappy, the said, the lonely: the visit effects a change. The deepsea divers appears 900 meters below the surface of the sea with a lamp of a terrible intensity, in order to surprise life. But those that were there, flee the light, while those who weren’t there, come near to it. (In spite of all of which, here outer eyes have seen what is hardly given to inner eyes to see, dreams and fantasies).”

Monday, December 01, 2008

Britneyology day!

Ah, December 2 – Brit’s birthday! All the britneyologists in the house go hey! Go ho!

My last post on Britney Spears received a vitriolic response from Dejan, who doesn’t, it appears, like Britney. Well, some don’t. However, Dejan, as an aspiring artist, is all too easily captured by his own likes and dislikes, the charmed circle of his taste. Does no intuition whisper in his ear that this is the path invariably chosen by the minor talent? An early death sentence where the artist is thrown into the circle of the mooks and the haters, infinitely chasing each other in a circle, tearing at each other’s tails – otherwise known as the comments section of You Tube. I’d advise him to heed the wise words of this woman.

My brother, Dan, thinks that Britneyology is a goof. He suspects his older brother of hatching schemes in which he claims beliefs and tastes that he doesn’t have. And, in fact, Li has done such a thing once or twice – but Britneyology triumphs easily over sincere and justified beliefs by simply crushing them underfoot.

And finally, in this list of objectors, an ex Britney fan who had followed her from the mouseketeer days went right to the point: in the one song released from Circus, Britney doesn’t sing. Womanizer is so computer blended that what went in, the thin L.A. patois over a charming, atavistic North Louisiana slowness of vowel, comes out bizarrely British, with hints of Michael Jackson. Now, this seems right to me. The Rolling Stones’ reviewer of Circus said that the singing on Blackout seemed phoned in. Thus, cliché blocks insight, as indeed the use of the phone is sampled all over Blackout. It made Britney’s fans – or at least those hooked into the success of the record companies – nervous. Why? Research has not found a lot of difference between the face to face and the phone voice, except that there is a tendency not to allow a lot of dead air in the phone conversation. However, the phone voice is also a persona – it clears away the bric a brac of the face, that old Victorian technology. Of course, the telephone was the first step in doing things to the voice – in fact, telephones still achieve voice recognizability by editing the vibrations of the voice. This brings out the sort of impersonal/personal that dance is all about. Britney samples her phone voice in Gimme More for the same reason that Biggy samples his in Suicidal Thoughts – it cuts through the engineering by way of engineering. It creates something direct. In Britney’s case, direct was crazy.

However, on her birthday, it isn’t Britney’s voice I want to praise, but her somnambulist's talent for walking between fires. This is what makes her much rarer than you and me. I wanted to quote from H.L. Mencken’s obituary of Valentino, here, but unfortunately, I can’t find the thing on the internet, except on Google Books.

The obituary tells a story. Valentino wanted to meet Mencken in New York to discuss an article that had been published about him in Chicago. The article implied that Valentino was effeminate. According to Mencken, Valentino wanted to challenge the writer to a duel, but was laughed at – and was baffled by the laughter. Mencken went to see him and tried to explain honor in the U.S.:

“Unluckily, all this took place in the United States, where the word honor, save when it is applied to the structural integrity of women, has only a comic significance. When one hears of the honor of politicians, of bankers, of lawyers, of the United States itself, everyone naturally laughs.”

Mencken’s obituary is an important, maybe a founding moment in the literature on American celebrity. Because it oscillates between a contempt for Valentino’s fame, as though fame were some vice, and a perception of the all too human somewhere at the center of his dilemma. At the center, there is a helpless sense of being overshadowed and maddened by the public drama at the periphery. The moment Mencken sees this and writes it, a star trope is born. Central to the celeb profile becomes the trauma of celebrity itself. This, of course, only causes more laughter or contempt. Yet for the celeb, even the densest one, this sense of being obscurely victimized leads to an overwhelming riddle that no man can unriddle – for who, exactly, has selected the victim, who has persecuted him or her, and for what purpose, is forever without an answer.

The length of Britney’s career has now, I believed, surpassed Valentino’s. She’s well on her way to that special status accorded to those whom the gods can’t destroy with the poisoned gift of visuality. Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, Madonna. We know them. We don’t know them. Nobody knows them.

And now for a birthday song from another North Louisiana scion, come from that state in the nineties, just like Britney.

Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies
While you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park

- Neutral Milk Hotel, oh comely

Tanta RIP

Tanta died.

I read Calculated Risk only to read Tanta. That woman could write. The mortgage is, from one side of things, the most boring of texts. It is mindnumbing numbers, and as it scrapes away your skin, it sings you songs of amortization that put your frontal lobe to sleep. On the other side of things, though, it is as shot through with the agony and the ecstasy as any romance novel. Or, as in the past decade, as any O Henry story – all of them were tending to that O Henry end. It is not the great literature a nation should wallow in, but under the Great Fly, it so became.

It had a poet though, and her name was Tanta.

CR and the Times both quote her Let slip the dogs of hell post in 2006. That post might have been the most powerful thing ever unleashed by the Blogosphere into the real world. It kills. Tanta’s patiently unfolds the acid logic of the Street until one sees it for what it is: a monster trying to profit from aborting itself. She analyzed an unspeakable Citi “analysis” of the mortgage market to show that it was complete gobbledygook – and worse, that it honestly described Citi’s strategy. Along with the other banks (many of them now defunct). If Robert Rubin were ever to face trial for criminal negligence for his role in Citi’s meltdown, the prosecutor could just contrast this post and Rubin’s infamous interview, last week, with WSJ. This is Tanta taking on Citi’s notion that the mortgage market was going to “rationalize” – that is, the big dogs, as she puts it, were going to eat the small dogs:

“I bring all this up not just to stick it to Citicorp, but because we’ve all been asking the question lately of who will be the bagholder when the exotic/subprime mortgage problem finds a home. We have noted in our discussions that credit risk can move in two directions: the wholesaler takes it off the originator and the bond investor takes it off the wholesaler/issuer with the helpful assistance of protection sellers in the hedge fund credit-swap market, but when the “DETOUR” signs pop up, the bond investor can work really hard on forcing it back to the wholesaler/issuer, who can try to put it back to the originator, who gets to try to recover something in a foreclosure sale. If the originator has any financial strength left to buy loans back with, that is; see the sad stories of Ownit, Option One, Fremont, New Century, etc. The “disintermediation” of the mortgage origination side keeps the Big Dogs “flexible,” meaning able to withstand cyclical downturns in the business, but the burning desire on the Street for “vertical integration” seems to mean an endless appetite for erasing that flexibility by buying up the originators of junk, so that they will have paid what one assumes is real money for the privilege of buying back their own loans right at the time they get the “flexibility” of not buying any more of them from the “intermediaries.” If you thought the only thing that would stop the circle jerk of risk was putting some credit and pricing discipline into the game, I guess you’re just a weenie like me. Anyone who can make sense of this is free to set me straight. And if the answer has “sorting socks” in it, don’t bother. I’ve tried that.”

Jesus that is beautiful.

ps - Calculated Risk has now put up a compendium of Tanta's posts. They are here. If you are at all interested in what happened during the zona, you should bookmark that link.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

On Ludwig Hohl

This is a story from Ludwig Hohl’s Notices – I don’t know if this has been translated. Hohl has his supporters in English – George Steiner calls him the secret master of German 20th century prose.


Three men had a fearful fight, each struggling against each. The fight raged over the question of what kind of parts a house is divided into.

The first said: “a house falls into: the cellar, the ground floor, the second floor, the third, etc.”
The second cried: “out of wood, stone, mortar, metals – this is what constitutes a house!”
The third, raging against the first true and treating them as liars and scoundrels, as they collaborated between them and against him, observed that a house falls into lines, and referred to an outline and a profile, on which the length and thickness of every wall, the breadth, length and height of the rooms were giving. Everything else was nonsense, only such projections show the exact parts.
Is it necessary to add that the three men fought to the death, because none would concede that the other was right? One died after the other – as an idiot and hero.”

Hohl spent twenty years laboring over his “Notices, or of the reconciliation that takes some time”, in a cellar in a working quarter of Geneva, to which he had returned after living in self imposed exile in Paris and then in Holland. In Paris, according to Peter Hodina, this is what he did:
“In Paris – at that time he was a very young man – nightly he walked around the borderlines between the arrondisements, eventually getting to all twenty. A singular, and eventually provincial method of getting to know a world city”
. Hodina also makes the remark that Hohl was one of those great writers who, like Valery, never wrote a great work. Rather, he sketched out the structure of one. And began to realize that this is what he was doing: "Everything, whether I underline a passage in a writer or copy it out or send a letter, note something, think something, take a position … everything is work.”

He wrote the Notices in the thirties and forties, giving up the idea of a narrative and breaking up his work into fragments, stories, phrases. The Noticess, when first published, fell still born from the press, and the publisher did not want to experience that with any more notices – thus refusing to publish Hohl’s second part. But reputation is a shadow that moves through a crowd and finds the right sensitive – this is the mythic side of Herder’s dispersed public, the literary and the wrongfoooted, who eventually find themselves drawn even to men in cellars – and in the sixties the young Swiss writers and others – Handke, for instance – referenced him. His intransigence, his alcoholism, his cellar.

I think of Pessoa, of Thomas Bernhard, of Robert Walser, of Roberto Bolano. And they die one after the other, idiots and heros.