Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year countdown!

Although friend of LI, Amie, strongly recommended that we go out and shake our rump this New Year’s, LI has that whole snail feeling goin' on this holiday season. We long for a shell, and a place to fold our antlers. So instead of going out and about, we will do the traditional ten songs, plus review the last year, etc. and as follows, indent, bullet point.

Obviously, LI became much less fun this year. In the old blogging days, which you will no doubt recite exciting stories of around the campfire to your grandchildren, back in aught eight, aught seven, we mixed up posts of eccentric, bizarre scholarship, meditations a la Pessoa if Pessoa had been a Texas puissant, and our usual political jeremiads – which was fun and edifying and much like a real tv show, if they had one about Nervous Breakdowns – Neurotic Survivor, say. ( Five characters, no med-pacs for a week!) I felt that everyone would enjoy scapegrace scholarship and confessions of deep personal inadequacy – since this worked for the Ancient Mariner – and it worked well enough.

This year, we took another route. We put all the personal essay material, plus the political nihilism, on another blog, News From The Zona, We even won a prize there! But LI itself has been the dumping ground for my Human Limit material. Now, we have tried to be as pretty as pussy about the whole thing, since otherwise, why do it? But it has made for a less, let’s say, antic site. All too often the posts come so loaded down with internal references and nuances that they assume the unapproachability of the wedding cake – which is, of all cakes, the one least made for eating.

We hope that those who miss the old LI – painting stripes on himself and baring his bum – are happy with the NFTZ site. On LI, it will be wedding cakes. Sorry, sorry, sorry! But we can’t give up putting up ten songs on LI!

This was not a year where we fell in love with a new singer, like Santi White. Rather, we fell in love with some old singers. For instance, Victor Tsoi.

1. Gruppa Krovi – we now feel that this song is an old chum. We even like the version by Anastasia Prikhodko, but we can’t quite swallow her neo-nazi connections.

2. Capital by Lyapis Trubetskoy – we rather loved this song. We loved the vid. Who can resist a song that mixes Marx, Disneyland and Vishnu?

3. We also fell in love, this year, with Les Rita Mitsouko. Why did it take so long? Who knows. Amie sent us this unbelievably cute link - and the music that was sort of a constant accompaniment the last couple months has been this one.

4. Okay, I had a weakness this year for Atlas Sound. So, bite me. Adolescent melancholy, be my muse!

5. I also had a weakness for Ladytron. This isn’t my favorite Ladytron, but I love that Bulgarian intro! And this is a more kickass song.

6. It was very much a Mekons year.

7. And what would the New Year’s be without Turkish music, that flows straight from my heart? Mogollar - Selvi boylum al yazmalim

8. Sexy Sushi – who gives me hope for the future! Enfant de putain – salope ta mere
9. Then there was the new Metric album - from which there's the great refrain in Sick Muse
10. And of course, an old song, Rumpshaker

Happiest of new years to y'all! Thanks!
PS - Amie suggested an Iranian song in the comments, and here's an appropriate one for the beginning of this year. Abjeez.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

“Those grimaces called laughter”

As I write this, at Whole Foods, a couple of women sitting near me are exchanging life stories, very much not an unual occurrence here, and especially at the ruminative end of the year. One of the women – a pleasant, rather beaky face, black hair cut in a shag that spreads out in wings by each ear, a voice that lingers a bit too long in the nose for it to have learned that trick in Central Texas, about forty – finishes her story and laughs. “And that’s why you get divorced,” she says. The other - shorter, frankly less interesting, surely more together then her friend, who ,coming out with those slightly lopsided raven’s wings, has been reflecting on her life – the other laughs too.

What is so funny?

Such a short question, such a long shadow. The question of what to make of “ce monstreux phenomene”. For it is monstrous in every sense – it shows, it demonstrates, rather than says – it reveals an automatism of the face, that organ/sign, as if the human body were here ruled by a different power, something other than the consciousness – it is – or at least, tradition says it is – a creation of man, and not a trait shared by the animals – and thus, is, to some slight extent, in competition with God. More than that, laughter and tears are liminal phenomena that must be put aside, explained as codicils, if we truly believe in the separation of pain and pleasure – that separation which defines feelings and emotions in terms of the negative and the positive. Yes, we can well imagine the android that cries, when receiving the instruction, be sad, and laughs when receiving the instruction, be happy – but the android that cries when happy, or laughs when sad, that android dreams of electric sheep. The instructions, at this point, have been taken out of the control of the instructor.

Surely such a phenomenon should attract attention. And, in Baudelaire’s essay on the Essence of Laughter, it receives it – in fact, that essay brings into play elements we have long been working with, from the class determination of a certain tone – the humorous tone, the comic – in philosophy to a mysterious and utterly enchanting tableau of vertige. In the deepest part of the essay, we come to a moment in which one feels an opportunity form – for an instance – and then fly away.

But first, we should foreground our work, here.

We go back, dutifully, always, we go back to the Greeks. Aristotle made the connections, gave us the themes, that have ever after been at work like the tailors in the Emperor’s new clothes – except where those tailors were swindlers, the invisible clothes that get passed down – hand me downs – here are themes, mythemes even. Aristotle evidently did not feel it was worth his while to write a lot about comedy – but what he wrote was sufficient to introduce a couple of semantif oppositions. One is the opposition between the high and the low, interpreted in terms of social position. Comedy is the preference of those in the low position. It is born low. Another opposition is confused in comedy – as we pointed out. This is the opposition between pleasure and pain. Aristotle, in the poetics, later explains how we can take pleasure in the pain of tragedy by purging ourselves of that pain – in comedy, however, the pain is mock pain – the laugh which creases the face borrows the rictus of pain to express pleasure. And this borrowing is inscribed into the architecture of the comic mask. And finally, there is the opposition between the beautiful and the ugly – which is correlated with the opposition between the high and the low:

“As we have said, comedy is an imitation of baser men. These are characterized not by every kind of vice but specifically by the "ridiculous," which is a subdivision of the category of "de- formity." What we mean by "the ridiculous" is some error or ugliness that is painless and has no harmful effects. The example that comes immediately to mind is the comic mask, which is ugly and distorted but causes no pain.”

Monday, December 28, 2009

some remarks on banality and realism

'Le Sage ne rit qu'en tremblant' - Baudelaire

When we read Belinski claim, in his Views on Russian Literature in 1847, that Gogol ‘based his art exclusively on real life, eschewing all ideals” – and see him opposing Gogol’s ‘natural’ literature to the school of ‘rhetorical literature’ – we rub our eyes. Gogol, the man who wrote the Nose, the Overcoat, and Dead Souls – based his art exclusively on real life?

“Herein lies the great service rendered by Gogol, and this is what men of the old schoool impute to him as a great crime against the laws of art. In this way he completely changed the prevailing view on art itself. The Old and threadbare definition of poetry as ‘nature beautified’ may be applied at a stretch to the works of any of the Russian poets; but this cannot be done in regard to the works of Gogol. Another definition of art fits them – art as the representation of reality in all its fidelity. Here the crux of the matter is types, the ideal being understood not as an adornment (consequently a falsehood) but as the relations in which the author places the types he creates in conformity with the idea which his work is intended to develop.” [Art in Theory, 357]

This is curious to us, who read Gogol after the revolution brought about by the symbolists, for whom Gogol was an especial favorite - in as much as he reinvented rhetoric, joyed in it, was, in all respects, an excessive writer. But it is not the divide between rhetoric and realism that concerns me so much as the rhetoric of realism itself. What the symbolists did was discover – not that Gogol was a fantasist – but that the realism of the realists was actually banality. The category of the real almost always turns out to be too big – it is a black hole of a concept - everything that approaches it gets swallowed, and who knows where it will reappear? But Gogol’s expertise in understanding the man who lies in bed until 11, or the comments that may be made, almost endlessly, about the wheel of a troika – Gogol, whose barbers discover, to their horror, that they have somehow cut off and brought home the noses of their clients – this is the Gogol who has found a whole dimension of modern life within which we continually struggle. But it wasn’t simply the discovery of the communication between the banal and the fantastic – it was, as much, the discovery that at its heart, the banal is evil. Yes, it isn’t the banality of evil, but the evil of banality that has driven the catastrophe of the modern. And on such soil, all social formations will tend to be variations of the grotesque.

Or to put it another way…

Well, to put it in several other ways. Our themes – the windfallen wood and the dead souls, both viewed as property – and the theme before – of addiction and the deathplay of psychoactive commodities – seem, we admit it, rather baggy. And we admit that the general imposition of our system of interpretation – which seeks out the general effect of the culture of happiness as a derivative of micro and macroscopic transformations of the human limit – seems sometimes as black and as hole-ish as realism. Isn’t there something subjective about the choice and treatment of materials, too? At one point in Dead Souls, Gogol is about to tell his readers what his women characters are thinking when, as he says, his quill positively stops on the page, as though it were made of lead. The task of revealing the thoughts of the ladies is too much for the poor bachelor author – it crushes him!

As well it should. I, who have thrust my hand into the pie backed by generations and in millions of mind, might do well to hesitate, rather than insist on pulling out plums. But I am not Gogol, nor worthy to put the sandals on his feet.

When Georges Bataille went on the attack against sur-realism – which, in spite of its affinity for the unconscious and automatic writing, continued, at its core, to believe that the real could be an –ism – he took up the cause of the big toe and the laugh. He took up, in other words, for the banal.

I have convoked these spirits, and now I need to shoulder through them.
Years ago, in 2008, to be exact, I wrote a series about chains. I recently re-read it, and discovered I’d made a small mistake in that series, which looms large to me, as I think about dead souls and the making of property – I quoted a passage about Roman law in William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman antiquities that I misinterpreted – although I blame Mr. Smith for his imprecision. I said that the creditor in Roman law was called an addictus – but this is wrong. It is the bondsman or woman, the one sold for debt, who was called an addictus – and though I am not superstitious about etymology, the Wiccan Marxist in me trembles a bit as I link the addict to the addictus, and the addictus to the live souls of the serf or the tree branch, and the dead souls to the chained troop of them conjured up, in the town of N., by speculation involving Chichikov’s purchases. I tremble as I laugh. All’s fair in love and metonomy.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Marx, Gogol and the principle of the ludicrous

Marx, in the Holzdiebstahl articles, allows himself to speak of the “poorer” class - ärmere Klasse – which, for those of us who’ve done our time on the Marx job, followed the old man’s routines, read the letters, tapped the secondary literature, written our reports, know the drill – is an indication that we are in the early stages of the man’s career here, in this text. The Marx of 1860 knows that the class of the poor misconceives class – which describes levels within the system of production, not something as contingent as income. The class of workers may be poor, but their class status is defined by what they do. Meanwhile, as those covering the classical and neoclassical economists know, the poor remain fixed as a primary economic unit in their schemes and dreams, in crude opposition to the ‘rich’. For class has dissolved as an organizing property among the economists, and economic units are determined outside of their place in the system of production – outside of their productive function, which enters in terms of a labor market. The labor market is a marvelous thing, a beast as fabulous as any reported by Pliny. The labor market, of course, then gives us a throwback sociology, which gives us these things – the poor, the rich – as a sort of hybrid of magic and statistics. In the neo-classical world, the rich face the poor, in the first instance, without mediation, and then, in the second instance, in an interface mediated by the state, that ‘redistributes’ money from the rich to the poor. This is the fairy tale, this is the leitmotif, this is how it is told on all holiday occasions. And thus, so much is allowed to the second of Polanyi’s double movement – that is, the movement that pulls against and curbs the social excesses of the pure market system. The state, here, functions solely to take care of the welfare of the poor. On the other hand, the first movement is ignored – in which the state redistributes, indeed, makes possible, the welfare of the rich. The state is the dead machine that creates its live doctor Frankenstein – that is, private property itself. A process that accompanies capitalism down to the present day, where private property can now be had in the genes of a virus; we cut up the planet’s atmosphere and apportion it out. And so property emerges where no property was – and so accustomed are we to this phenomenon that we do not even think about or see it.

Thus, even at this point in his life, Marx – without his essential tools of class and the system of commodities – understood that this ‘side of the economy is, as it were, being twisted out of shape by the application of categories that do not reflect the dynamic axis of the economic system – in fact, seem as though they were designed to obscure it. The law is no longer written on stone tablets, but jimmied into place by those who control the legislative activity. All of which rather disturbs the high abstractions of the philosophy of law taught to Marx in Berlin. And – as the articles on wood theft show - the greatest of these misprisioning category-makers and voluntary blindspots turns out to be the divide between the private and the public spheres, which is ideally true, and practically a sham.

Yet, as I’ve pointed out, at this point in his career Marx is still working with these categories, still looking at socialism with the eyes of a lawyer – or rather, a philosopher of law. There is an old and oft told tale about how all of that works out, which skips over the Rheinisher Landtag and puts Marx in a capsule with Hegel, where they struggle for dominance. And who am I to object? The tale is all well and good and philosophisch like a hardon – but we should remember that Marx isn’t, actually, in a capsule, nor is he simple a figure in the history of philosophy, with its Mount Rushmore like heads. Neither the law nor justice jumped out of Hegel’s encyclopedia. The law was something any peasant, any Josef K., could bump into in the midst of life, in a wood. The legal approach to property, Marx will find out, is one-sided – insufficient. It is only when this insufficience gets too big for its britches and goes around presenting itself as the totality that we fall into mystification.

Marx already touches on parts of that mystification in these articles – but I feel irresistibly impelled, by every imp in my bloodstream, to sample some Gogol here, who had a knack, a supernatural knack, for dramatizing muddle. In the 9th chapter of Dead Souls, as we watch two women devise, between them, a story about Chichikov’s plan to elope with the governor’s daughter for which they haven’t a shred of evidence or even a thought that proceeded their confab – as this beautiful error is hatched in their gossip, and the two women become more and more descriptions of themselves – the agreeable lady and the lady who is agreeable in all aspects – Gogol pops his head out to make a rather astonishing case that this is the equivalent of what happens when the historian – shall we even say, the universal historian? – conjectures a story into the world:

“That both ladies finally believed beyond any doubt something which had originally been pure conjecture is not in the least unusual. We, intelligent people though we call ourselves, behave in an almost identical fashion, as witness our scholarly deliberations. At first the scholar proceeds in the most furtive manner, beginning cautiously, with the most diffident of questions: ‘Is it not perhaps from there? Could not such-and-such a country perhaps derive its name from that remote spot?” Or: Does this document perhaps not belong to another, later period?” Or: “When we say this nation, do we not perhaps mean that nation there?” He promptly cites various writers of antiquity and the moment he detects any hint of something – or imagines such a hint – he breaks into a trot and, growing bolder by the minute, now discouses as an equal with the writers of antiquity, asking them questions, and even answering on their behalf, entirely forgetting that he began with a timid hypothesis; it already seems to him that he can see it, the truth, that it is perfectly clear--- and his deliberation is concluded with the words: “So that’s how it was, that is how such-and-such a nation should be understood, that’s the angle from which this should be viewed!”

To so radically equate gossip with historical philosophy leads us, surely, to Marx – if only because Gogol, too, is responding to the ‘historical school’ that derives from Herder, Schiller and Schelling; and because Marx, like Gogol, has an eye for the principle of the ludicrous. There are two ludicrous themes in the wood theft articles. One consists in how, exactly, law is re-creating the status of the private property holder in the face of his history – “for no legislation abrogates the legal privileges of property, but it only strips it of its adventurous character and imparts to it a bourgeois character”. There is certainly an undertone in this description, which makes the normalization of feudal law into a cynical play, a game of dress down and dress up, of stripping the adventurer and imparting to him the burger’s placid certainties, that reminds us of Gogol’s Insprector General – and may have been meant by Marx to refer to Beaumarchais. No undertone of comedy is ever insignificant in Marx. Our second ludicrous theme consists in the parallel Marx draws between the modal status of the windfallen wood and of the poor. The wood that by custom is gathered in the forest – wood that is scattered, strewn - is cut off from the organic tree, and thus becomes philosophically unnecessary and organically dead. Meanwhile the gleaners, the poor are also cut off, in as much as their customary rights are contingent [zufaellige] concessions, and thus their very existence, insofar as it is based on these customs, is outside of justice [Recht] – which puts it in Robin Hood’s realm, apart, accidental. In fact, in a beautiful phrase, Marx claims that the custom [Gewohnheit] or usages of the poor are the “anticipation of a legal right.” The spirit of Benjamin, the angel of history Benjamin so fiercely invoked, floats over this idea that the little tradition, the shared usages of the peasants, anticipates the moment of their legal recognition in the future. That anticipation is, of course, the revolution.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

dead wood, dead souls

Its very hard to find anything in Gogol, right up to the meaning; Gogol somehow shrinks from your touch, wriggles away. He hides, and when you finally find him it won’t be right, it won’t be him: it isn’t that you have found him, but that he thrust himself out where you didn’t expect him, where there was no place for your ideas of him, where he wasn’t yesterday. That Gogol is no longer where you remember him; this one is not where you expect him. – “Being Burried Alive, or Gogol in 1973 – Andrei Bitov

On the one hand, it is a mere coincidence that, as Marx was writing about windfallen wood in 1842, in Russia, a novel named Dead Souls was passed by Nicholas I’s censors and published. On the other hand, no Gnostic historican can afford to turn up his nose at mere coincidence – for are we not the slaves of intersignes? And surely this must be an intersigne, an exchange happening in the basement below universal history, where all the dealers in codexes are busy cutting them up and mashing them back together.

To look at windfallen wood from the aspect of whether it can be defined as private property, Marx claims, tells us a lot about what private property is defined as. The same can be said for buying dead souls – souls that exist on an equality with live ones on the tax rolls. What Chichikov has figured out (and was born to figure out – in Chapter XI, Gogol’s portrait of the birth and schooling of a rational choicer certainly shows us this much) – is what we now know in various other forms – the credit default swap, the leveraged buyout, etc. Which is that in capitalism, the nominal, given the right circumstances, easily triumphs over the substantial. One buys a company making real things – like mattresses – with debt itself. All of these brilliant financial innovations were not dreamt of in Nicholas I’s Russia; and yet, buying dead souls in order to take out a loan from the government to buy a substantial estate – Chichikov’s general plan – touched on the very essence of financialization. Touch on its intersection with the forces of life and death – which is why in the town of N. (a town Gogol describes in his notes as pure emptiness), a stout middle aged man, looking neither handsome nor ugly, having no real distinguishing trait about him, could, in the course of his business, eventually be mistaken by the townspeople for the Antichrist – that is, Napoleon – himself.

Meanwhile, in Köln, Marx is writing about dead wood and live ownership.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

where does private property come from, Dad?

Wood theft, according to the two scholars who have studied it in the German context (Blasius and Mooser) was one of the central crimes against property in the 19th century, from the 1830s to the 1860s – over about a generation. Marx’s five articles about the laws concerning wood theft are not, then, about an eccentric issue. And, as much as wood “theft” is an issue in the history of crime, it is also an issue in the creation of property –which is how it opened Marx’s eyes, as much as they were opened in his classes in property law at the University of Berlin. It is here that we find Marx dealing with the kind of enclosures that were central to Polanyi theory of the Great Transformation. Private property was not, on this account, merely guarded by the state – the still reigning liberal myth. Rather, it was through the state that private property was defined. To separate the state from the private sphere is to move from historic fact to ideological myth. Why that myth is important is another matter. What Marx saw happening was important in the way he came to see understand class, rather than remaining with Stand – a word that is hard to translate. Status, station, estate – those are the English equivalents.

In 1858, in the preface to the Contribution to a Critique of Political Economics, Marx wrote: “My major was jurisprudence, that I nonetheless only took up as a subordinate discipline near philosophy and history. In 1842-1843, as the editor of the "Rheinischen Zeitung", I was embarrassed for the first time to have to discuss so called material interests. The Rheinische Landtag’s treatment of Wood theft and the parceling out of land properties, which opened up an official polemic between Herr von Schaper, at that time the president of Rhein province, and the Rheinischen Zeitung over the situation of the grapegrowers, debates finally about free trade and tarrifs, gave me a first occasion to deal with economic questions. On the other hand the good will to go further into this further made up for a lot of special expertise, and a weak philosophically colored echo of French socialism and communism could be heard in the Rheinischen Zeitung.”

Marx, at this point, did not have a systematic understanding of property relations as an economic system, nor did he understand how that system had generated a fundamental change in the composition of society – a change, so to speak, from status to contract, from custom to free labor - but rather, he had a legal/ethnological view of the rules governing property that he used to criticize the state government’s abolition of customary rights – Gewohnheitrecht.

Monday, December 21, 2009

one-sided world

…der Verstand ist nicht nur einseitig, sondern es ist sein wesentliches Geschäft, die Welt einseitig zu machen, eine große und bewunderungswürdige Arbeit, denn nur die Einseitigkeit formiert und reißt das Besondere aus dem unorganischen Schleim des Ganzen. – Marx

“…Understanding is not only one-sided, but it is its essential business to make the world one-sided, a great and marvelous labor, because only one-sidedness forms and rips the particular out of the inorganic slime of the whole.”

James C. Scott begins Seeing Like the State with an emblematic story, a parable of one-sidedness, concerning the rise of scientific forestry. That rise occurred in the late eighteenth century, when the Prussian state intervened in the assessment, preservation, and reproduction of forest properties, all in order to create a more efficient natural resource. The German forestry service cleared out many features of the ‘old’ chaotic forests – the ‘weed’ species, the unnecessary ground cover, the poaching birds, animals and humans. Fire, too, is a poacher, and must be prevented. Even age forests – much more useful for lumber, much less volatile in terms of calculating yield – were groomed in their place. The description of the forest consisting of the same species, standing in disciplined ranks, row on row of trees, is eerily like the disciplined classroom or jail described in Foucault’s Surveiller et Punir. However, Scott considers this not so much a regime of the vision as the reading eye – the eyeball attached to understanding. This, in Scott’s terms, is what it means to make the woods – that place of darkness and gloom in which Little Red Riding Hoods encounter deceitful wolves – into a place of legibility.

Unfortunately, what happened over a century was that this monoculture produced row upon row of vulnerable, sickly trees. After the first, healthy generation had used up the ‘accumulated capital’ of soil nutrients laid down by hundreds of years of undisciplined forest growth and death, the next generation of trees were excessively prone to insect and fungal infestation, wind damage, and starved, splintery and miserable growth – at least in human terms, where it was all dollar signs and lumber.

In the nineteenth century, however, the German service had been seen as a model, and was adopted by the forestry service in the U.S. and the British service in India. The British even imported a German forester to make sense of India’s tree growth. To chase Mowgli out of the jungle, and put the stamp of the one-sided on what grew and creeped there. But in the twentieth century, where the forestry rules had been followed, the result was Waldsterben – forest death. Even now, that ominous poacher, the forest fire, is stalking the drought stricken forests of the American West – which are being eaten up, at any rate, by a boring beetle whose larva now survive the winters in the Rockies, thanks to the fact that the winter have not been as cold for the past thirty years. One side is flipping to the other side.

“The metaphorical value of this brief account of scientific production forestry is that it illustrates the dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in
order to isolate a single element of instrumental value. The instrument, the knife, that carved out the new, rudimentary forest was the razorsharp interest in the production of a single commodity. Everything that
interfered with the efficient production of the key commodity was implacably eliminated. Everything that seemed unrelated to efficient production was ignored. Having come to see the forest as a commodity, scientific forestry set about refashioning it as a commodity machine. Utilitarian simplification in the forest was an effective way of maximizing wood production in the short and intermediate term. Ultimately, however, its emphasis on yield and paper profits, its relatively short time horizon, and, above all, the vast array of consequences it had resolutely bracketed came back to haunt it.”

In a note, Scott glancingly references Karl Marx’s five articles about the changing forest laws instituted by the provincial government based in Cologne. Mehring crediting those article with a great advance in Marx’s life – he claimed that in them, for the first time, Marx attempts a class analysis.

I want to take a break from the artificial paradise of drugs. The next five or six posts will be about trees.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


My sister blog, News from the Zona, just won third place in the 3 Quarks Political Blog contest. All my heteronyms are happy.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Drunkenness is a number

When Moreau de Tours writes of hashish, it is as a chemical means to simulate madness – implying that madness occurs by means of chemicals. When Baudelaire writes of intoxicants, he writes in an entirely different register. Wine, opium, and hashish are always connected, in Baudelaire’s works, to the “multiplication of individuality” - to quote the subtitle of “Wine and Hashish”. In his notebooks, published as Fusees, he puts it another way: “Tout est nombre. Le nombre est dans tout. Le nombre est dans l’individu. L’ivresse est un nombre.” [Everything is number. The number is in everything. The number is in the individual. Drunkeness is a number.] In the Artificial Paradise, the first section on hashish is entitled ‘the taste of infinity’ – LE GOÛT DE L’INFINI – which plays on the meaning of taste as both a thing of the tongue and an inclination of the spirit. There are also the great poems of multiplication, the most famous of which is the Seven Old Men, which begins: Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves,/ Où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant ! and which proceeds to describe the apparition of an old man who is followed by another and another, until there are seven in all:

“Son pareil le suivait: barbe, œil, dos, bâton, loques,
Nul trait ne distinguait, du même enfer venu,
Ce jumeau centenaire, et ces spectres baroques
Marchaient du même pas vers un but inconnu.

À quel complot infâme étais-je donc en butte,
Ou quel méchant hasard ainsi m’humiliait !
Car je comptai sept fois, de minute en minute,
Ce sinistre vieillard qui se multipliait !

Que celui-là qui rit de mon inquiétude,
Et qui n’est pas saisi d’un frisson fraternel,
Songe bien que malgré tant de décrépitude
Ces sept monstres hideux avaient l’air éternel !”

It is noteworthy that in the taste of infinity section of The Paradise Artificial, the same cosmological references – to heaven and hell – and the same references to sacred and secular arithmetic – the eternal and the infinite – provide the cardinal points for Baudelaire’s spiritual variation of Moreau’s thesis: that the inspired mood is exterior, a refined mode of exteriority, in fact, in which the world yields its secrets to the poet-subject.

“It is certain that a constant elevation of desire, a tension of spiritual forces towards heaven, would be the most appropriate regime for creating this moral health, so brilliant and glorious. But in virtue of what absurd law does it manifest itself sometimes after guilty orgies of the imagination, after a sophistic abuse of the reason, which is to its honest and reasonable usage what physical sprains are to gymnastic health? This is why I prefer to consider this anormal condition of the intellect [l’esprit] as an authentic grace, as a magic mirror where man is invited to see himself beautified, that is to say such as he must and could be; a kind of angelic excitation, a rappel à l’ordre under a complimentary form. Likewise, a certain spiritualist school, which has its representatives in England and America, considers the supernatural phenomena such as the apparition of phantoms, of revenants, etc., as the manifestation of the divine will, attentive to awakening in the intellect of man the memory of invisible realities.”

Angelic grace. Grace is, of course, a kind of gift. Gratia, pleasing, or a favour, goodwill. It is the mode in which revelation occurs to the bearer of charisma in Weber’s formulation of charismatic legitimation:
“Charismatic Dominion by the power of affective surrender to the person of the master and his gifs of grace [Gnadengaben] (Charisma), in particular magical abilities, revelations or heroism, power of the intellect [Geistes] and of speech. The eternally new, extraordinary, never-seen-before, and the emotional possession thereby are here sources of personal surrender. The purest types are the dominion of prophets, of warriors, of great demagogues. The dominating combination is communal association in the congregation or the order of disciples [Gefolgshaft]. The type of the orderer is the Guide [Führer]. The type of the follower is the disciple [»Jünger«] Obedience derives exclusively for the sake of the leader‘s person and his purely personal, un-utilitarian qualities, not because of a prescribed position or traditional values. And thus only in so far as these qualities are ascribed to him; his charisma is preserved through its proofs.”

Of course, Weber’s language takes on a much more sinister tone for us, who vividly recall one such Führer. But I am more interested, here, in the underlying opposition of one type of knowledge involving number – in drunkenness, in inspiration – against another type of knowledge involving number – in an algebraic/commercial system of substitutions, in technology, in science. Just as the taste of infinity can lead to the misery of addiction, the taste for inspiration can lead to the misery of fascism. A parallel that I will muddy, blur, scratch – but that I do leave as a marginal gloss.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

spleen and ideal

De fait, le cas le plus significatif me paraît être la route. Si l’on veut
vraiment protéger la nature, il faut supprimer la plus grande partie des
routes. – Jacques Ellul

I love the term “artificial paradise”. A few remarks, philological and speculative.

At first, according to a letter Baudelaire wrote to Poulet-Malassis, his publisher, on April 25, 1859, the essay on hashish and the translation of parts of the Opium Eater were to be published under the title, L’idéal artificial. L’idéal, in Baudelaire’s lexicon, has a prominent place in Fleurs de mal – where it is paired with Spleen. In Baudelaire’s poem, L’idéal, it is related to women – and yet, in that poem, the women are all plucked from either literature, prints, or painting:

“Ce ne seront jamais ces beautés de vignettes,
Produits avariés, nés d'un siècle vaurien,
Ces pieds à brodequins, ces doigts à castagnettes,
Qui sauront satisfaire un coeur comme le mien.”

In the decision to use Paradise as the object modified by artifice, Baudelaire delinks it from women, and links it to drugs – which gives us an old set of connections – woman as a drug, woman whose sexuality is offered to the man as a drug, the woman – Eve – who offers the fruit to the man – but, in the end, breaks with, ruptures that myth. The artificial paradise begins precisely where the old paradise ends – in swallowing, in taking a substance into one’s mouth.

I’m all jumpy at this point, all careless. I love the phrase, “artificial paradise”, because it hints, it speculates on, a notion that is anathema to the simple dualism of man vs. nature, or culture vs. nature – artifice is not only a second nature, but it is one that is not an extension of man. Rather, it exists separately, outside of man, distinct from the human. The idea that the world is humanized by human technology – comforting to some, a scandal to others – is not quite right. Rather, the “extensions of man” – the artifices – penetrate both man and nature, operate as a third domain, introduce into nature the addicted being. In the binary of artifice and nature, man – o man – is, at best, a bystander. To suppress the roads, to bring down the artifice, to turn against the third domain, is, truly, unthinkable, a cold turkey unto death.

To put this another way, following up some posts this spring on Foucault’s Les mots et les choses, the mutation at the end of L’age classique was not at all about the birth of ‘man’, that figure drawn – a vignette! – in the sand by the seashore, but was all about the birth of the Other, that Other which is at the dead center of the human sciences.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Cia and poetry

In 1841, when I published my memoir on hallucinations, I wan’t yet able to study the effects of hashish except in an imperfect manner. Since, I have made a great number of experiments on myself and on some persons (among others, many doctors) that I succeeded, with some difficulty, in making decide to take it. – Moreau de Tours

Central Intelligence Agency – what a marvelous deathgrip phrase, out of the forge of the Cold war, that titanic maker of acronyms and euphemisms! In its specific institutional form it was, of course, founded under Harry Truman in the USA in 1948 – but the principle of the Central Intelligent Agency – its spirit – was a spectre that haunted the happiness culture from the beginning. The convergence of intelligence towards some panoptic center – which would then be institutionally clad, in hospitals, schools, academies, government bureaucracies, and markets – something like this has always stirred on the horizon of the industrial economies, with their decreasing rural populations and increasingly murky urban areas, with their feverish imperial projects and their sciences.

In the history of those special psychoactive markets in of exotic commodities – sugar, tobacco, coffee, tea, opium, cannabis, etc. – we know that the American CIA played a special and shadowy role in the twentieth century. It was, for instance, the broker and bankroller of the first wave of research on LSD. In effect, it is to the CIA that Ken Kesey, among others, owed his first acid trips.

Gnostic historians, seeing the intersignes where others see simple coincidence, who understand that the path is no simple thing (a path of breadcrumbs, or a path of pins, or a path of needles), are alert to all intersections of art and the CIA – and thus to the fact that in the 19th century, the first conjunction of artists and cannabis, in Paris, was presided over by a CIA like figure: Joseph Moreau de Tours. Moreau de Tours holds a special and little known place in the history of neurology – he is generally acknowledged as the first scientist to premise that madness was based on neurological chemistry. Further, he was sure that this chemistry could be simulated through the use of hashish – and that it could, as well, be treated by hashish. One can leap over the intervening synapses to the present to find variants of his theory dominating psychiatry today, where the reigning model assigns to seratonin a mysterious power over mental health. Mysterious because, in spite of the billions of dollars in research on the subject, we have really only observed that certain chemical neurotransmitters can be effected by our drugs in such a way as to palliate or impede schizophrenia and depression – but nobody understands why. The proof is in the effects of the drugs, which, of course, is not proof at all, but a falling back on an earlier medical logic of like producing like.

As Alan Baumeister and Mike Hawkins put it in “The Serotonin Hypothesis of Schizophrenia: A Historical Case Study on the Heuristic Value of Theory in Clinical Neuroscience” (2004): “The inspiration for toxicologic theories [of madness] was the observation (which has been made repeatedly for centuries) that numerous exogenous substances produce effects that resemble, at least superficially, the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses. One of the first psychiatrists to systematically exploit this observation was Moreau de Tours, who in the 1840s conducted studies of hashish on normal and mentally ill persons (Moreau, 1845).”

Foucault, of course, noticed Moreau de Tours as well, in his lectures on Psychiatric power. He points to the fact that Moreau directly links the phases of his own intoxication with hashish to the phases of mental illness – without any intermediary explanation of why the two should be connected. Foucault makes the rather mysterious comment that “to tell the truth I think it [the book] should be analyzed within a history of drugs rather than within a history of mental illness.” But he then makes a very Baudelairian statement:

“Anyway, with regard to the history of mental illness, according to Moreau de Tours this use of the drug, and the immediate assimilation of the effects of the drug and symptoms of mental illness, provide the doctor with a possible reproduction of madness, a reproductin which is both artificial, since intoxication is needed to produce the phenomena, and mantural, because none of the symptoms he lists are foreign, either in their content or successive sequence, to the course of madness as a spontaneous and natural illness. So, we have an induced but authentic reproduction of the illness.” (279)

Of course, the mind leaps to the de Quincey-ian notion that if we can artificially produce mental illness, could we not artificially produce mental health? And find a pill for happiness that we can put in our pockets, and latter in our mouths? Is there not some Central Intelligence Agency, some science, some technology, that could deliver us from every pang and lead us along all the correct paths, the path of what is, the path of day, the healthy neural pathway? And yet, always, there is something sinister about the CIA – as if the intersignes we have gathered here do not signify our delivery at all, but rather our collective forgetting, our increasing inability to see and understand the system of the artificial paradise.

Ma femme est morte, je suis libre!
Je puis donc boire tout mon soûl

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

becoming the way

Marc Soriano on his book, Les contes de Perrault, culture savante et tradition populaire: “Ai-je mené mon enquête, ou mon enquête m'a-t-elle mené?”

A man tells this tale: in a chariot led by wise horses and celestial maidens, he comes to the portal of night and day and is there greeted by a goddess who cries out to him that he has left the beaten track of men.

He describes neither himself, nor the horses, nor the maidens. But he does described the wheels of the chariot, and the sound they make going round on the axle.

The goddess then proceeds to fill him in. There are two ‘routes’ of inquiry: that of what is, and that of what is not.

Philosophers, enraptured by what is and what is not, have neglected the question that some more naïve inhabitant of roads, ways, trails, streets, pistes, sentiers, Wege, some vagabond, some pour lost soul, might ask – say a girl wearing a red hood, entering a forest and coming to two trails to her grandmother’s house. That question is – how is being, or non being, like a road? Or, if inquiry and being are so related as the chariot wheel is to the track – how is inquiry a road? Why this image?

Who leads the inquiry? I imagine this question coming from the girl, as she strips off the hood and throws it into the fire, and strips off her socks and throws them into the fire, and strips off her chemise and throws it into the fire, a magic fire that consumes instantly and ashlessly, and all the undergarments, strip he tells her, and her staring at the being on the bed of whom she has always had a presentiment. The being who wants to see all of her and never will, there will never be enough seeing, just as she has remarked on enough of him, seen him – his teeth, his ears, his hairiness. This couple, made of girl and wolf, sex and hunger. Both know trails, tracks, paths. One will return, one will not. Both know the pins and needles. One is the route of what is, one is the route of what is not and cannot be. Beware of the second route.

Not that this couple would have been in any position to read the fragments of Parmenides, which were first gathered together again – all the extant verses - in the West by G.G. Fuelleborn in 1795. [Nestor Luis Cordero, 10]

He was not a gentle wolf. Perrault wrenches this story from the forest and the tracks first laid down by man back to the court:
Mais hélas ! qui ne sait que ces Loups doucereux,
De tous les Loups sont les plus dangereux.

But the maidens that accompany our hero to the portals of night and day – the girl might have recognized them. Saintyvres, in a folkloric interpretation of Perrault, associates the chaperon rouge with the headdresses of the May queen: On the isle of Lesbos, on the eve of May day, the young girls gather flowers in the countryside and on returning home make crowns that they suspend over doors, and crown themselves: red flowers are mixed with wheat stalks, nettles and garlic. The garlic protects against the evil eye, the nettles prick the enemy who wants to enter into the house, the wheat attract riches and the red engenders gaiety.”

Of this couple, I am made. Of this route, I am puzzled. These routes, what leads, what follows. I have been thinking of addiction as a road, a path – of one among a type of path, in what is called path dependence. Here the path, forgotten by the philosophers, turns upon them – that so submissive thing, hardly a thing at all, on which angels, devils, beasts and mankind walk up and down. With the confidence that the way back is along the same path as the way forward. The goddess at the portal of day and night might seem, to the man honored by her instruction, to have made this point clear. Don’t worry about the quantification of the road. Of the route of the search, what counts is the search – not the route. You can go back anytime you want to.

Except in the poem, that ability to return is attributed by the goddess to herself. Slyly – she may be a gentle wolf: “Behold within your mind’s own deepening frame/those presences steadfastly fixed, yet all/removed from obviousnessn; for never shall/these beings dissolve their ineluctable hold/on Being, whether scattered manifold/across the cosmic all, or packed into/a rounded ball; for, where I start, thereto/shall I again return self-same.” I may assume that the “I” here is a shifter, and that I is I. But in the converse of mortals and gods, as we are reminded again and again in the ancient texts, it is the god’s great favor to use mortal words – and the gods have names for things in their own language.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Birthday playlist

I have been thinking that it is time to do a post about Parmenides, Jesus and Little Red Riding Hood - isn’t it always? – but instead, as this is my birthday, I think I’ll put up a playlist.

1. Nina Simone – this is an excellent birthday song: Feelin’ Good.Parataxis meets a horn section – how can I resist?
2. Les Rita Mitsouko – I’ve been obsessed with this group lately. And this lovely vid: Les Amants
3. Patti Smith – a song about the proper use of money – as an object of poetic revery. Free Money.
4. Bi-2 – The group that did the music for Brat – which is sorta bad, as that was a truly reactionary movie. But I’ve been obsessed with Russian music lately. Fellini
5. Nico Vega to dance to – Cocaine cooked my brain
6. James Brown – Ah, James Brown. Man’s World.
7. Prince – okay, a little song for dancing again. 1999
8. 2 Live Crew – Me so horny. Do I have to explain?
9. Dead or Alive. That’s the way I like it. Just because a song has to be folded, spindled and mutilated in this sublunar world.
10. Prince. Again. Somehow,he is my b day deity today. If I was your girlfriend.

Friday, December 04, 2009

review of One Dimensional Woman

[Cross posted from News from the Zona]

La mère en prescrira la lecture à sa fille… -The epigraph of Philosophe dans le boudoir.

There is a story about the French feminist, Pauline Roland, that goes like this. In 1848, a faction of the socialist saint simonians had gathered together in Broussac, a village about 13 miles from Nohant, under their leader, Pierre Leroux. George Sand, who lived in Nohant, had been the one to persuade Leroux to move the village after Leroux had been officially exiled from Paris as a radical. Leroux, in turn, invited Roland to live in Broussac and assume the duties of a teacher. At the time Roland was being financially crushed under the burden of supporting her three children by her own labors; she did this because she had no intention of letting the fathers of these children intervene in any way in their lives. Thus, she felt that they had no duty to provide for the children – on the contrary. Paternity, she proclaimed, was a superstitious imposition. Another superstitious imposition, the monarchy, fell in France in 1848, and elections were subsequently held in, among other places, Broussac. Roland went to the town hall and tried to cast a ballot for Leroux, only to be refused admission. The story goes that when the police took her in for her attempted vote, she told them that she was “Marie Antoinette” Roland.

I think there is something deep about this story. On the one hand, Pauline Roland was a socialist. After her stay in Broussac, she returned to Paris and was an active member of the workers’ association that briefly sprang up in that city. It was for this subversive activity (as well as for “feminism” and “moral degeneracy”) that she was tried under Louis Napoleon and exiled to Algeria. According to the memoirs of a member of the printers union, Bosson, Roland had shrewdly sized Louis Napoleon up and was scathing about the way some union leaders – notably Leroux – were still unclear about Louis Napoleon’s intentions on the evve of the coup d’etat in 1851: “Pierre Leroux made an incredulous smile, he told me: I know my little Louis, he is incapable! Pauline Roland who was a frail creature, a mere breath, jumped about like a lamb: Your little Louis! But I love a thousand times more the butcher Cavaignac [leader of the reaction] than your little Louis!” [see Paul Chauvet]

On the other hand, as she knew – and as feminist historians from Marie d’Agoult to Joan Landes have noticed – the status of women worsened during the time of the French Revolution. The Romantic revenge against the women of the eighteenth century was codified in Napoleonic law. The great melody of equality, which found its voice in Olympe de Gouges and Condorcet, had its head cut off – for not only did Gouges, among other ultra women, go to the guillotine, but the culture of the salons, in which women, as Landes put it, could be the ‘adjuncts’ of power, was targeted for destruction by the revolutionaries and, to an extent, by Napoleon (whose vulgarities regarding Madame de Stael would have been looked upon as extremely distasteful under the ancien regime). By an irony of circumstances, Roland’s final trial, staged by Leroux’s “little Louis”, was less about her subversive activities than her shocking behavior as a wanton woman and a mother – which was exactly how Hebert had stage managed the case against Marie Antoinette in 1793.

‘Marie Antoinette’ Roland names, I think, the tension between feminism and the left. In the seventies, some feminists tried to straddle that tension by identifying patriarchy with capitalism. However, I can’t see this as anything other than a tactic of conceptual desperation, and certainly not a logical conclusion drawn from history.

The tension between a left that subsumes the historical female difference to reproduction (in keeping with a logic that can only see systems of production) and a feminism that often collaborates in its own narrowing to a series of consumer choice runs all the way through Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman, which begins by asking: “Where have all the interesting women gone?” The book is in the fine tradition of the political pamphlet, which takes its first duty to be flinging some extreme truths in the face of the public. For in the pamphleteer’s soul, the truth is always and forever extreme. It is a genre that Power excels at.

The book is both a plea for a useable past and a summing up of the dreadful uses made of feminism in the 00s: the bad faith feminism that provided the cynical grounds for our neo-colonialist adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, shoulder to shoulder, of course, with Saudi Arabia, that paragon of women’s rights; or the extension of feminism to mean, anything connected with a powerful woman, however dubious her politics or economics; or the Sex and the City feminism that normalized the independent woman as a consumer of gourmet chocolates and a really really fun person who happens to be oh so charmingly for equal rights for women.

Right off the bat, I am predisposed to favor this book. It is not only that I am a fan of Nina Power’s blog, Infinite Thought. It is that I am an intellectual thief of that site. Her site, in many ways, taught me how to write my own blog. When I first starting reading Power, I had started my blog already. But I didn’t know how what tone exactly to take. Was I going to write small essays? Make a link machine for friends? Use it as my diary? Power was one of the first bloggers I read who had figured out the genre, at least to my satisfaction, and I took many of the things I wanted to do for most of this decade from Power’s stylistic suggestions. She had Djed the mix of the theoretical, the personal, and the colloquial that I knew, immediately, was what you could do with a blog. Later, her use of montage like use of shock or mock images, a la John Heartsfeld, was something I decided to slavishly imitate. I was a blogger with an unknown tropism, and Infinite Thought was my sun.

In particular, Power figured out how to lower the ego of the blog. Many blogs – and mine included – are long arias of me, which can get tedious over time. Power, however, uses language as something that she can stumble over, transforming egotism into slapstick. This isn’t British self effacement, but a sort of juggler’s fumble. All of those funny “erms” and curve ball rhetorical questions in her blog posts have a function. It is through these techniques that she establishes an intimacy with the reader – for the fumble is a hand outstretched. It is a contact. It is a gesture that reminds us of the author’s sovereign right to touch. Benjamin, in his essay on Leskov, speaks of the tactile moment in the story, when the storyteller touches the listener, puts his hand on the listener’s shoulder. That self-interruption, that way of making the language something that actually comes off the tongue and is thus heir to a death no word itself could feel, is an extremely subtle move in the internet world – it is a quick, golden flash – and you have to look for it - for mostly, on the internet, every intimacy has been mimicked to death, and the storyteller’s touch turns out to be the cold, cancerous hand of corporate speak, poking you in the eye.

Thus, I read One Dimensional Woman, Power’s first book, against her already pretty formidable output. Although the book sometimes jumps around “like a lamb”, betraying its blog origins, the extended meditation on pornography, sexpol utopias, and the contrast between radical feminism and what Power calls the current attitude of “deflationary acceptance” – the era of normalized feminism – is a continuous piece of cultural criticism of a pretty high order. I am extremely sympathetic to her viewpoint – I believe Power is advocating for the sociability of pleasure, or what used to be called “volupté.” Thus, she mostly avoids the pitfalls of the sterile opposition between pornography and erotica – and, though it may seem like an oxymoron, she calls for something like a Habermasian pornography (I never, ever thought I would put those two things together! The universe truly is the Library of Babel, and everything will eventually conjoin with everything else). This is a strength of her materialist and productionist viewpoint. The weakness, however, is that, while she does explore the history of dirty movies and the 80s drive, by some feminists, to ban them, she doesn’t explore the larger history of feminist strategies and the persistent fissure that exists between the left and feminism. McKinnon and Dworkin, after all, were by no means the first feminists to turn the movement into a fight against a social ‘vice’. Feminists in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Anglosphere – and even in Mexico – were allies, for instance, of the temperance movement. They crusaded against child labor, and against prostitution. Against the lineaments of gratified desire, feminism has always adduced the social fact of systematic violence – of drunken husbands beating wives, of the degradation, illness, and early death endemic to the prostitute’s trade, or – in the case of pornography – of the purported link with rape. Jane Gallup has suggested that feminism is divided between bad girl and good girl feminisms. One can question whether even irony can rescue that division from an infantilizing logic to which it reduces the feminist dialectic, but it does, at least, provide us with a sense of how feminism is divided on the question of the sociability of pleasure. In a sense, the normalization of feminism in the 00s, against which Power directs her polemic, is a normalization of a kind of bad girl feminism. For what is the solution to male drunkards beating their wives? Woman friendly alcohol. Woman friendly cigarettes, woman friendly porn, woman friendly products and services – by a strange dialectical twist, the bad girl alliance with the lineaments of gratified desire has driven this feminism into an advocacy of the female subject as an equal consumer.

Here, I wish Power had been a little more panoramic in her vision of feminism – and had not dealt simply with the movement as though it had sprung up almost exclusively in the late 1960s.

Yet this might be asking to much from a book that is intentionally as short as a bullet. What I really want to say, watching Power aimi for the heart of the era of normalized feminism, is: Shoot Nina! Shoot!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

the post I didn't post

I've put up a post at News From the Zona that really belongs here. But NFTZ needs a new post, poor blog, and I want to let the post there, re Poe, Baudelaire, Derrida and Lacan twist a bit more before I move it here.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

junk, destiny, and personal myth

Jean-Yves Trépos, an anthropologist with the Equipe de Recherche en Anthropologie et Sociologie de l’Expertise, made a study, in 1993, of the interaction between a clinician and illicit drug users who had been referred there by the state. In “Auto-control and proto-professionalization among drug users” (2003), he used a concept from Elias, proto-professionalization – the emergence of recognizable codes, routines and disciplines in a given social set – and applied it to drug users, following the suggestion of a dutch medical anthropologist, Abram de Swann. It is not the individual that is proto-professionalized, in this theory, but the network in which the individual operates. We know these traits from our everyday experience: the guy who knows about computers but doesn’t work in the computer field, the amateur photographer, the birdwatcher. What we are searching for, in the initial period of capitalism as a dominant economic form in the West, are the gaps in the system of the division of labor - for it is through those gaps that we can understand something important about the resistance to the culture of happiness, mounted on behalf of the imagination, that was fought in one way or another by a number of disparate types - from the addict to the slave to the laundress to the poet. Imagine this as a tableau, with these as witnesses in the background. Here, in this historical moment, here it was that happiness as a total social fact and the capitalist division of labor became interdependent.

Trépos discovered a lesser level of proto-professionalization among pot smokers than among heroin users. There are degrees of the Mordspiel.

“With IT [therapeutic intervention] for heroin, one glimpses in fact another world (and sometimes even one completely enters it). Among the users arrested for this product, there are no doubt hardened professionals, who are able to reference themselves in terms of a career (in Howard Becker’s sense). But in the group one has mostly to do here with consumers on the road to chronic use, already possessing a pretty technique (of rhetoric and gestures) and who hesitate between amateur and semiprofessional experience of limits (which still offer the possibility of turning around (du retour en arriere) and submission to the corporal demands of addiction. If they don’t believe they are “there” yet, it is for different reasons than the ones above [the pot smokers]: they have already made this experience and, most likely, the most wise no longer envision psychiatry as anything other than a provider of prescriptions... But the most striking trait, in reading the notes of conversations with the doctor, it the pronounced taste for the interpretation of one’s proper trajectory, which is translated by an abundant story, pursued from one visit to the other and by a sense of dialogue [repliques]. Still, one should not imagine that we are going to find the stability of the interactions that we observed with the users of cannabis: this is the universe of missed appointments, certain being created by an interruption that is strongly reminiscent of the irruption of the real (overdose, arrest, but also cure or work). In brief, the interactions here are much more spectacular.”

The universe of missed appointments – here, too, we can connect the dots, find a path. Trépos speaks of the ‘irruption of the real’ in the sense of the negative, that which is exterior to the institution and the role the user plays within it – although in itself the cause can be positive, or at least filled with a context. An overdose, being fired from a job, getting a job. These missed appointments create two things: one is that the “chronicisation” of the drug – its chronic use – generates a chronicisation of visiting the clinic. Unlike pot smokers, heroin users have a much harder time getting away from the clinic. The other thing is that the spectacular nature of the missed appointments – the frequency of life-changing instances – is reflected in the autobiographies, the great narratives, that the users tell. They are the correlate of the failure that has brought the user to his object, his commodity, his demonic happiness. The failure is performed for the doctor. Trépos calls these negative autobiographies – here, image management is about people who are too ‘cowardly’ to commit suicide. People, incidentally, that I identify with myself. Those born to lose, and who keep picking at the skin of that loss. Why? Perhaps in order to revise the terms of any destiny that is divided between losing and winning.

Monday, November 30, 2009

the spirit of the crossroads: nature and artifice

In Legend, Myth and Magic in the Image of the Artist, Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz quote a fascinating anecdote from Pliny’s Natural History:

“According to Duris, Lysippus the Sicyonian was not the Pupil of any one, but was originally a worker in brass, and was first prompted to venture upon statuary by an answer that was given by Eupompus the painter; who, upon being asked which of his predecessors he proposed to take for his model, pointed to a crowd of men, and replied that it was Nature herself.”

(Naturam ipsam imitandam esse, non artificem)

This exemplary gesture (and oh how I have always loved a pointed finger!) is surprising to a modern sensibility in which the finger is more naturally pointed at what exists outside the circle of men – at rock, or tree, or landscape. Kris and Kurz take the story of Lysippus as a narrative that gives us, or that gave us, for a long time, a way of thinking about what the artist does. And insofar as that doing is an immaculate birth, a recognition that flows through the eye and the hand and the body, it is a particular kind of myth: “ Since Alexander’s time Lysippus has ranked as one of those to whom “the conquest of Nature through Art” – the ideal that also emerges from Pliny’s account of him – owes most. In classical antiquity he was already credited with saying that the ancients (his predecessors) had depicted men as they were, whereas he depicted them as they appeared (Pliny,34:65)” [15-16]

I devoted a post to Kris’s notion of the personal myth last year.
Since I am taking the autobiographical dejecta, so to speak, of certain artists – De Quincey, Baudelaire, and Burroughs among them – to probe into the history of the imagination and its worlds within the artificial paradise - I propose returning to Kris here, where nature and artifice – what what men are and what they appear to be, where the smith and the artist – come to a crossroads. It is the crossroads, or the spirit of the crossroads, which I want to carry off – or be carried by. It is a sphere in which vocation and career do not define the trajectory of human existence. I would guess that there is a necessary porousness, a necessary inconsistency, an elbow room beyond the concepts in use, in any society.

Kris and Kurz again: “Eupompos’s remark joins the repudiation of tradition with the adherence to nature. It is undoubtedly due to this double meaning that he is referred to again and again to characterize new programs of realism in art.”

What we meet at the crossroads, here, is an epistemological couple – invention and discovery – under the masks of which we find another couple, the mythic couple of nature and artifice – in the case of Lysippus, appropriately enough, the transition from smith to sculptor. Kris and Kurz find the motif of the artist discovered as a child, already displaying a genius for arts, in a number of vita scattered through art history – and not only in the West. “Or, to cite a remote derivative, the Japanese painter Maruyama Okyo was discovered by a passing samurai, having painted a pine tree on a paper sack in the village store.” [27]

Baudelaire’s life and works – his extraordinary intuition of the artificial paradise and its relationship to the “gulf of the number” (“Tout est nombre. Le nombre est dans tout. Le nombre est dans l’individu. L’ivresse est un nombre”) was such that it gives his entire work an aura of backwards holiness - and I have, I hope, emphasized enough over the past year the crucial moment of backwards reading, the sorciere's spell, the moment when backwards and forwards are delinked. The condition that made his experience exemplary for the modern artist is one of a missing moment - the mythical moment of discovery never happens. The discovery – the moment in which the patron elevates the artist from the forge – is multiply linked to a hierarchy in which this particular moment can happen – at least in myth. We have all heard the long story of the death of patronage, its agony in the eighteenth century, and the freeing of the artist. But there is more to this than the decay of an institution.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

cowardice of the great

Behind Proust’s essay on Sainte Beuve and Baudelaire, one feels the whole experience of the Dreyfus affair, which taught Proust an unforgettable lesson: how much depends upon the cowardice of the great. It is this insight that drove the alienated liberals towards socialism at the end of the nineteenth century. In Sainte Beuve’s treatment of Baudelaire, Proust saw an emblem of the system of relations that put the imagination at the service of the platitude, and the platitude at the service of maintaining, at any price, one’s place in the artificial paradise.

Of course, the essay has capacities, pockets, unexplored frontiers that can’t be reduced to the above thesis. But to understand the peculiar immersion of the artificial paradise – the swallowed commodity that swallows the user (as we restlessly toss and turn in the golden egg) – I want to use Proust’s essay as the torch that lights my way into the vault.

Proust’s problem in the essay is not just to untangle Sainte Beuve’s relationship to Baudelaire – his maddening assumption of superiority, his strategy of deferring the moment of writing about the poet until it is too late, the Cheshire cat language he uses that at one point makes Proust cry out: “quelle vieille bête ou quelle vieille canaille…” like Charlus in the final stages of exasperation – his problem, the deeper problem, is to untangle Baudelaire’s relationship to Sainte Beuve: the unfailing politeness, the sincere delight he took in any scraps thrown him by “l'oncle Beuve.”

These are tangled ties, knots within Gordian knots. The screw turns. Proust’s solution is extremely beautiful.

Comme le ciel de la théologie catholique qui se compose de plusieurs ciels superposés, notre personne, dont l'apparence que lui donne notre corps avec sa tête qui circonscrit à une petite boule notre pensée, notre personne morale se compose de plusieurs personnes superposées. Cela est peut-être plus sensible encore pour les poètes qui ont un ciel de plus, un ciel intermédiaire entre le ciel de leur génie, et celui de leur intelligence, de leur bonté, de leur finesse journalières, c'est leur prose. Quand Musset écrit ses Contes, on sent encore à ce je ne sais quoi par moments le frémissement, le soyeux, le prêt à s'envoler des ailes qui ne se soulèveront pas. C'est ce qu'on a du reste dit beaucoup mieux :

Même quand l'oiseau marche, on sent qu'il a des ailes.

(Like the heaven of Catholic theology, which is composed of many superposed heavens, our person, with the appearance given it by our body with its head, which confines our thought to a small bowl, our moral person is composed of many superposed persons. This is perhaps more felt in the case of poets, who have an extra heaven, an intermediary heaven between that of their genius and that of their intelligence, that of their generosity, of their daily canniness, which is their prose. When Musset writes his Stories, one senses again this unknown momentary quality in the quavering, the sleekness, the unfolding of wings that do not extend in flight. Which, besides, is said much better: Même quand l'oiseau marche, on sent qu'il a des ailes.) (my translation)

This is as central an idea to Proust, I think, as the idea of the eternal return was to Nietzsche – and was evoked by the same long experience of the cowardice of the great. Saint Beuve for Baudelaire, Wagner for Nietzsche, and, in Proust’s case, the collective cowardice of the establishment, including the literary establishment – the Daudets, for instance – in the Dreyfus case.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Urban renewal

Owen has written a very suave piece in the Guardian about the London suburbs. There’s a show at the London Transport Museum, Suburbia, which hails the synergy (if not conspiracy) between the advancement of the London subway system and the development of London’s outer ring. As Owen puts it, dapperly:

“The exhibition alludes to the fact that London's private transport companies were the sponsors and often the creators of suburbia, extending their lines into open country, promoting the glories of the countryside, and then developing it out of existence.”

Ah, the displaced rural nymphs. Myself, even as a boy loose in the suburbs of Atlanta, it amused me that the apartment complexes of Dekalb county would invariably give themselves names evocative of the stuff they had just bulldozed over in order to offer the 2bd 1bth for a reasonable 1970s price of 200 or 300 per month. Oakwood Trail. Sweetwater Acres.

The exhibit's enthusiasm for suburbia apparently wanes after the sweet collaboration between transport and land developers was rudely interrupted by nationalization: “After 1945, however, there were no more speculative incursions of London Transport into the countryside.” And the ductus of desire changes, too – the car comes in, and the city is no longer something one wants to be within reasonable distance of, but something to escape.

I wonder how the firebombing of London figured in that change?

There’s a nice paper by Peter Galison entitled “War against the Center” that takes up the issue of de-centering – suburbs in the fifties to de-centered information networks – or the Internet – in the sixties through the nineties - and the everpresent shadow of the bomb:

“Here I would like to point toward an architectural dispersion rather less abstract than that celebrated by a generalized zeitgeist, by a shift in an economic base "reflected" in the cultural superstructure, by an epochal postwar taste change toward suburban life, or by an entropic flow away from an ordered city core. No doubt such intellectual, pragmatic, aesthetic, and stochastic drives did contribute to the pressure driving dense city cores outward. But today I want to begin elsewhere. Not in 1973 with the oil crisis and subsequent economic upheaval, nor with the social upheavals or deconstructivist literary-theoretical work of the 1960s. Nor, for that matter, will I start with the Internet, though I will come back to it. Instead I will address bombs: the bombs of the long war that, in a certain sense, began in the 1930s, accelerated after the Nazi seizure of power, continued across the end of World War II, through the cold war, and even past the fall of the Soviet Union into the present unsettled moment.”

Galison wrote this before 9/11 – the last sentence is just a feeling, an ache in the global bones.

Galison focuses on the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey stationed in East Anglia during the war. This bureaucracy was making a sort of immense stress map of the German population, economy, and military machine. They were making this map not to travel it, but to delink it, burning building by burning building. “Appropriately enough, Franklin d'Olier, president of Prudential Insurance, ran the whole of the Survey- the greatest damage-assessment program in history.” One of the major figures in it was Paul Baran, a Marxist economist. One of the minor - W.H. Auden. Although Auden did know Central Europe.

It is in the game between the USBS and Speer’s Reichsministerium für Rüstung und Kriegsproduktion – and game theory was, of course, being developed at this time by Neumann with the Cowles commission back in the U.S. – that we come to the endgame of modernism – if we take modernism as really dead. What the USBS discovered was that bombing was not like pulling out a plug. In the end, German industry survived: "even in the case of a very concentrated industry very heavy and continuous attack must be made, since otherwise the enemy, if he can survive the initial shock, will be able to take successful countermeasures. “

While this might not seem like poetry, it became the good news of the Cold War period. Countermeasures – o the heavenly sound of it – meant resurrection and survival. To build the factory with specs that included the potential attack, this became the holy grail. To disperse the community from the heart of the firestorm – to decentralize communications – to randomize hubs. Such were the commands in the voice of the Pharaonic god, whose pyramid was a pentagon. What is synthesized can be decomposed, each tributary traced back to its source, each source mapped for anti-aircraft gun emplacements, each operation given instructions on the pattern of destruction expected.

Oddly, the Germans – so good at systematically going through the records to decimate Jews – did not seem to understand the science of destruction on this scale. In Gravity’s Rainbow, that is one of the overriding mysteries – why make random strikes with V2s? Surely they were trying to hit something. Deluded, like bad action movie directors, by special effects, the Luftwaffe treated bombing as a Wagnerian spectacle.

“Autumn is a funny time to be bombed. It is the hopeful start of the home year. It is not a time when exalted feeling runs high. Autumn used to stop you sighing after Ewigkeit and make you feel how much you liked just now. You felt rooted deeply – and loved your roots. Even in Britain it was Thanksgiving time. Autumn used to be a protracted feast of Saint Cosy: the hearth meant a great deal, the mothballs were shaken out of fur coats, the children went back to school, the blue misty evenings drew in. In the country, in the city squares was the tang of weedfires, the brisk rustle of leaves being swept up. This year, leaves are swept up with a tinkle of glass in them.” [Elizabeth Bowen]

The Wagnerian spectacle fizzled out in that tinkle of glass. But the future, definitely, was being forged in fire. For after the war was over, the war wasn’t over:

“Bombing the Axis economy and dispersing the American one were reflections of one another. When Charles E. Wilson, director of the Office of Defense Mobilization, came before the National Security Resources Board of the President's Executive Office, he needed an expert on how to disperse industry. To the captains of industry assembled for a 1951 hearing, Wilson sought to justify his strictures about splitting plants by ten or twenty miles. "Mr. Gorrie brought me a real expert on that. I call him a real expert because he was one of the men who had done bombing in the industrial arena of Germany, and cer- tainly he convinced me that 10 or 20 miles provides reasonable safety."25 Bombers braced for bombs.”

Galison’s point is that the history of architecture and urbanism in the post-war period should not simply fasten onto architects, or fashions. Rather, they should study the final Survey of the Strategic Bombing Survey – because, in the fifties, everybody else was.

Weekend croaking

There is enough gloom outside my window to delight the heart of Poe's raven. I'm going to go on to the artificial paradise via Baudelaire, next. But not in this post, where I will simply suggest that everybody watch Les Rita Mitsouko videos, like this one. Even Poe's raven liked it - croaking, ever more, cheri!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

hide and seek and ontology: SR II

Deep Blue I wanna give it all to you
Deep Blue I know that scares you - Ladytron

What was in the beginning? Who was in the beginning? It was in the beginning. It (which comes back to us, as children, as the one who finds the ones who are hiding and tags them – making them it) must have been there – for if it wasn’t there, was there a non-itless world?

“Love overcame it in the beginning, which was the seed springing from mind; poets having searched in their heart found by wisdom the bond of what is in what is not.

Their ray which was stretched across - was it below or was it above? There were seed bearers, there were powers - self-power below and will above.

Who then knows who has declared it here, from whence was born this creation? The gods came later than this creation who then knows whence it arose?

He from whom this creation arose, whether he made it or did not make it, the Highest Seer in the highest heaven he forsooth knows - or does even he not know?” – Max Muller’s translation of verses from the Nasadiya hymn of the Rg Veda.

Prajapati floats in his golden egg. This egg gave birth to him. And then he impregnated the egg. In order to be given birth to. There is no “then”. There is no story here.

Hide and seek may be long ago, but the cosmological shudder, the story of the very beginning, is always a cue for the highest seriousness. In a sense, what is serious is defined by this story. We are all intrinsically interested in it – every eggfucking one of us.

LI has long sought to understand the permutations of the human limit, which is what the last two years of posts here have been largely about. During that time, the school of Speculative Realism has also made it a point that, in thinking through the human limit, philosophy can finally once and for all understand the absolute finitude of the human. O happy days! Thus, I thought, vaguely, that I was on side. But since IT’s post about SR politics, or lack thereof, I’ve read a bit more of the SR literature. Not, by any means, enough to become conversant in it, but enough to form a few opinions. I have long lost the passionate interest in ontology. I understand it, however. And insofar as SR conveys the excitement of something new, it is seductive. But its revolutionary truths come clothed in some very traditional terminology, much of which serves it badly. Myself, I was struck by how much work is done for the SR theory by that enduring trope, independence vs. dependence. Here are a few quotes:

“Science speaks to us of a time that preceded not only the relation of consciousness to the world, but any relation to the itemized world [monde repertorie]- any form of life. But since Hume and Kant, every philosopher knows well that the idea of a knowledge of things in themselves supposed to exist in an absolute fashion, that is to say, independently of the subject, not relative to it- that this conception of knowledge is floated by a realism that is dogmatic and worm-eaten (always according to the expression of Kant).” Meillassoux, Contingence et absolutisation de l’un.

“Correlationism insists that there can be no cognizable reality independently of our relation to reality; no phenomena without some transcendental operator – such as life or consciousness or Dasein – generating the conditions of manifestation through which phenomena manifest themselves. In the absence of this originary relation and these transcendental conditions of manifestation, nothing can be manifest, apprehended, thought or known. Thus, the correlationist will continue, not even the phenomena described by the sciences are possible independently of the relation through which phenomena become manifest. (51)

“For Meillassoux, the possibility of non-correlational reality – i.e. of an objective realm existing independently of any transcendental conditions of manifestation – finds its ontological guarantor in the structure of absolute possibility concomitant with absolute time.” – Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound 85.

What is striking about these passages from Meillassoux and Brassier is the thematic weight that accumulates around the dependence/independence relationship. Seemingly, this binary allows us to do any number of things. For instance, it produces sides, a versus: the correlationists and the non-correlationists. And it allows us to disregard, as inscrutable local politics, differences within the correlationist camp such that those suspects, consciousness, dasein and life can all be rounded up as co-conspirators. Of course, the idea that consciousness and dasein are mere substitutes for each other might disappoint their promoters and authors, and that, in turn, they could substitute for life seems a little odd – life here taking on qualities it isn’t normally associated with in biology - but so the reckoning goes – all of them exist as machines with a function. That function is to pump out possibility. They are transcendance producing machines.

Still, what manner of thing is this parameter, dependence/independence?

“There was no death, hence was there nothing immortal. There was no light (distinction) between night and day. That One breathed by itself without breath, other than it there has been nothing.”

“An axiom A of a logistic system is called independent if, in the logistic system obtained by omitting A from among the axioms, A is not a theorem.” – Alonzo Church, Introduction to Mathematical Logic (quoted by the OED)

Dependence is certainly not determination. Nor does it seem to be a cause. The thing that hangs from another thing, the child or wife that is under the authority of the father – such things are not necessarily born from the father, and certainly not made from the noose – criminals make themselves. They are independent, until they are de-pending.

Let us then roll over in the egg, the egg upon the cosmic sea, and consider some substitutions. Is, for instance, the universe dependent on time? Is it dependent on matter? In one sense – the sense in which it all begins in the big bang – the answer is no. In another sense – the sense in which the ‘laws’ of space and time organized the IT that is the universe – it is.

In this example, we sound much like Gooodman’s worldmakers. There might be a deeper point here for philosophers, which is that one of the puzzles of science is that we don’t understand what we understand. Our understanding has outstripped our imagination. This does not mean that we lack a vocabulary – it simply means that vocabulary lacks an imaginary correlate. Its correlate simply is the frame of reference as an artifact – the formula, the Feynman diagram. And, surprisingly, the things that we understand that we don’t understand we can operationalize. To reintroduce history into a narrative that wants to refuse it entrance, this is why the correlationist, the anti-realist, or whoever we have under surveillance, here, returns to histories.

Thus, it does seem like a revolutionary turn that, out of the field that one associates with an anti-foundational bias, there should arise a school which claims that It is no mystery or monster. We can meet IT and shake its hand. Come out, come out wherever you are.

When we speak of independence or dependence in philosophy, and especially the idea of mind-dependence, we are actually abridging a long and complex metaphysics. It is an abridgement that has, of course, its politics. By the time a certain idealism reached the West, in Berkeley, there was already various ideas floating about concerning the inferiority of the East. There was something distasteful about Irish prelates throwing themselves about like Eastern fakirs, no doubt. Thus, idealism assumed the cloak of the most advanced businessman, who spoke in clear, pure Locke.

It is a good question – why was the idealistic moment so late in arriving in Europe? But it is a question that goes against the grain of universal history, which asks the question, why is x (some European thing) so late in arriving in one of the non-European places. Europe cannot, after all, be dependent.

However that history goes, the Lockean context is still a good one. However bad a tutor Locke was to Shaftesbury (whose journals are an almost psychopathological cry against the man), he was very good at assuming that all men are awake – if you aren’t awake, how can you hear me? – and thus have some business at hand. Here the idea of mind-dependence and mind-independence seemed easily to be settled. Kick a rock. Or you can think of all the things that don’t depend on you thinking of them. Name what is under your power. (To use Shaftesbury’s method – the man was always writing philosophical memoranda to himself). Name what you can do nothing about by thinking. Think of the name. Think of the name as an instrument. Think how, as you take up the name, you take up a thinG that is not in your power. Recall a moment when you, your self, your thinking self, had any power over anything. But to think it is to name it, and to name it is to take an alien instrument into your hand that burns right through the ego, whether it erects itself as the very possibility of experience or as another miserable hider in the game of hide and seek.

At this point, Hume traded Hindoo depths for Lockean commerce and chose convention and habit. (There was then neither what is nor what is not, there was no sky, nor the heaven which is beyond. What covered? Where was it, and in whose shelter? Was the water the deep abyss (in which it lay)?

The SR philosophers pursue Hume on this point – but not far enough to ask questions about their dependent/independent parameters. And it is here that one feels that a certain eagerness has crept in – that the tables have turned on IT and the dogs are lose. But IT is the finder, remember – not philosophers who don’t even remember breathing when there was no breath.

The eagerness comes, perhaps, from the same direction as the rafle that brought in consciousness dasein and life as versions of the transcendental machine – alpha, beta, zeta, perhaps. Or Curly Moe and Larry. For surely it is not consciousness that forms or even dasein that forms the anti-realist core. It is, rather, just those things - convention, frames of reference, language, math – that seem happy to operate without the cogito. To conflate those things with correlationism is not just to mistell a history, but it is, shall we say, a typical philosophical mistelling, one that drops the process of production and holds to the marketer's abstract. Surely the reason that these artifacts have had such a damaging effect on the philosophical faith in realism is that they produced what realism had tried to deny could be the case – for instance, inconsistent worlds. Or rather worlds that could only be made consistent by adopting a number of bridging principles that were so cumbersome, and did so little work, that the task of creating them is slowly dying off with the last of the old logical positivists. Ernst Nagel’s pupils, salut! Instead, to understand them – that is, to operationalize them – we embraced Bayesian probabilities and world making.

Now, I am not an ontologically committing man. I strongly suspect that it is not on the level of ontology that I am going to find answers to my questions about the human limit – or at least that those answers will come from social ontologies that I will, as happily, not commit to. However, I must admit some distaste for a certain moment in Brassier’s program: ‘Nature is not our or anyone’s “home”, nor a particularly beneficent progenitor. Philosophers would do well to desist from issuing any further injunctions about the need to re-establish the meaningfulness of existence, the purposefulness of life, or mend the shattered concord between man and nature. Philosophy should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem.”

On the one hand, I could just classify that as typical philosopher’s obliviousness. In the age of the last terra seizure, that of the atmosphere by the CO2 emitting conquistadors, what we really need is not to mend any shattered concord. Right. In the larger sense, health has nothing to do with whether you stop cigarette smoking or not – and really, philosophy of health should be more than a pathetic twinge to help the anti-smoking lobby. Etc. The idea that nature is not our home is correct, in that home is an intensional concept which references the place from which we dump our garbage, and nature is the referent meaning, the place into which we dump our garbage. A happy arrangement, as every yahoo knows. And certainly it is going to be most unpleasant when we are thrust out of our home into our garbage, although other yahoos who aren't so lucky have certainly been on the other side of the garbage spilling, boy howdy. So it is hard to tell if SR is being tone deaf, here, to the one truly planetary issue, or if this is spoken out of some deep unconsciousness. But in any case, there is something tawdry about this ‘demystification.” It is heresy in support of orthodoxy, a very gated community paradox. It is the perfect Hummer motto. And it stinks.

We get a signal to leave you alone
Alone's where we leave you
Alone's where we find you