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

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

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

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Reindustrialization Bank of America

Unfortunately, the reporting about Obama’s ‘stimulus” in the Press has concentrated overwhelmingly on the price tag. This is the kind of thing that is catnip to the economists, who love a number and a model the way a kitten loves a ball of yarn. It is also a way of shirking the occasion. No number will bind up the economy. No number will produce out of its pocket the road back from the abyss for the U.S, still the most powerful nation in the world. The abyss is not just getting fewer video games for the kids at Christmas. It involves a worldwide environmental crisis, as well as a nationally limited one – the drought in the West – that is getting bigger every year. It involves a worldwide cultural crisis, as thirty years of dumbing have put us all on the day shift of endless pantysniffing idiocy, strangling the capacity to daydream and replacing it with various forms of porno. It involves the decline and fall of the war system – Hitler’s triumph, the system has been used for sixty years in the developed countries (as well as the U.S.S.R) as the economic stimulus of first resort, the prosperity of which served to buffer the population that gained from it from feeling the traditional reach of the wars that were directed against less fortunate populations.

The list of projects included in this article by James Galbraith, who has been reliably clearsighted about the problem of predator capitalism, is a great place to start putting faces on the -000000000000 numbers. Here’s a selection:

The industrial crisis requires immediate action if the auto companies are to survive. For such cases in the future (and there probably will be some) the relevant precedent is the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, headed during the New Deal by an intrepid businessman, Jesse Jones, who saved many important companies with a combination of loans and workout plans. A new RFC would enable the federal government to assist industries– perhaps not as large, not as essential, or as threatening as the collapse of the automobile industry would be — but on a somewhat systematic basis for the duration of the crisis.
As for helping the workers who are most severely affected by the industrial aspects of this crisis, Teresa Ghilarducci, professor of economics the New School, has proposed a simple and effective step that would further the cause of universal health care: reduce the age of Medicare eligibility to the age of 55. That would take much of the cash burden of healthcare costs off of enterprises, where they don’t belong anyway. And it would provide the opportunity for many workers who would like to retire but won’t do so because they can’t afford to lose their health insurance.
The housing crisis requires mortgage abatement, a resetting of the toxic adjustable rate mortgages already being initiated through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and also a concerted effort out in the neighborhoods to restructure mortgages and to keep people in their homes. Here the historical model is the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which did this in the 1930’s — an enterprise that took about 20,000 people to manage 1 million mortgages. Essentially the same effect could be achieved today by buying back the mortgages through Fannie and Freddie and then turning them over to a restructuring facility – the present version is known as the H4H, or Hope for Homeowners program.
The point is that while you cannot effectively stabilize the price of housing, you can try to save the existing housing stock, stop the spread of blight, the abandonment of homes, and the homelessness that results from an unchecked wave of foreclosures. We will then have preserved those neighborhoods and those communities for a better day.

The great mistake of the boys of October was not just in approving a program that could easily be seen to be the biggest bank robbery in history, perpetrated by the CEOs of the financial system, but in not seeing the opportunity before them - given the numbers the government was willing to put up, we could easily have created a national bank, capitalized to the tune of some 700 billion dollars, that would invest in re-industrializing the U.S. True, the political fighting would be intense, as this kind of thing entails some shocking encroachments on U. of Chi school verities, and would rightly be seen by the upper 10 percentile as an erosion of their share of the national wealth. But the falling of the industrial base has since made it even more obvious that Citi was a bad investment for America. Galbraith is right to hark back to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation of the 30s, and if such an entity had been in place in December, we could have begun to coordinate a really comprehensive response to the twin problems of a worsening dependency on oil and an American auto industry in freefall. A number of intermediate steps might have to be taken to solve these problems that would involve creating public entities ex nihilo, and then spinning them off to private investors. For instance, it just might be the case that U.S. autos could double their mileage if, as in Europe, cheap diesel fuel were available. In Europe, such fuel has long been subject to a refining process such that it is a lower emission fuel than U.S. gasoline. There is no comparable refinery capacity in the U.S., so the U.S. government should simply build one. Such would by no means be the final step towards creating a much more sensible green vehicle –hydrogen offers one path, electric rechargeable batteries another. Now is the time to pour money into R and D on all innovative engine types, so that we have the prospect of replacing the entire fleet of cars in the U.S. with green ones that can hook up to be recharged anywhere in the U.S.

At the moment, the idea of the state interfering this massively in the economy still lacks popular support. However, it doesn’t lack economic rationality. The private sector has long misallocated capital to projects with short term horizons to please equity investors. This has been a big factor in the de-manufacturing of America – which is a story not only of manufacturing jobs lost, but of big manufacturing opportunities squandered. Investors are as aware as anyone that those companies that are innovative – that show the greatest productivity growth – aren’t as profitable as those companies that are quarter to quarter beauty pageant winners. There are exceptions, like the computer industry, but one notices the shortfall in say broadband too – as opposed to, say, the abundance of I-phones. One requires heavy capital investments that will result in a slow but steadily increasing yield, the other doesn’t.

the birth of alienation from the severed head of Olympe de Gouges

The split up came violently. Three delegates, Georg Forster, Adam Lux, and Andreas Patocki, a Mainz businessman, left Mainz just before the reactionary forces took the city. Therese was already gone – she’d joined her lover with her children. Caroline Michaelis wasn’t so lucky – she and her daughter left, but were unable to get out of the area, and were forced back into the city. In the background was not only the terror in Paris, but the white terror in Frankfurt. Forster and his fellow delegates made it to Paris and settled in a hotel run by a “patriotic Dutchman” in the Rue de Moulins, close to Tuileries and the Palais Royale. “The poissarde, the women from the fish market, cried out to them according to their custom a welcome to the city, and thereby earned a tip.” (Uhlig 325) It was here that Forster met many of the other transplants in Paris, including Mary Wollstonecraft.

I like to speculate that Forster saw Olympe de Gouge’s affiches denouncing Robespierre, which were put up at the end of July, 1793. Certainly the fate of the second Mainz delegate, Adam Lux, is attached to hers – his trial followed directly upon hers in the Journees des Assemblées Nationales. He had written a defense of Charlotte Corday, whose magnificent beheading had fused together the revolutionary passions in his soul – Lux then proceeding to his own version of suicide by cop, which was to exalt Corday in a pamphlet and denounce the Convention.

These were Forster’s surroundings for his last writings – among which LI must signal Relation of the art of the State to the happiness of humankind – Beziehung der Staatskunst auf der Glück der Menschheit. Of course, by this time, the Glück der Menschheit was a cliché; yet LI is going to make the argument that this is an unjustly neglected pamphlet. In it, we see a self-conscious critique of happiness find expression from a revolutionary point of view. LI is wary of chasing after “origins” and firsts, but certainly this essay deserves a special place in our history of the rise of the happiness culture. That its genesis should be among the moderates, the Girondistes, recalls us to the re-orientation which underlies this history – one which recasts the location of the radicals, the opposition, and the establishment, draws a different line of tension, reads, we’d dare say, under the ossified categories by which we usually do our history and distribute the actors and the ideas.

I’ll translate excerpts from it in an upcoming post.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Zona report

It's all right
To be mean


The Zona report today was strong enough to flummox even the priests. On Economix, the NYT blog, economists have been invited to do their usual ritual dances – they step on the skulls of the evil greedy and lazy laborer, they pray for efficiency, they come up with irresistible reasons to give one of the class of the 10,000 richest households another million or billion. During the Zona, however, the dances begin to seem frantic. The old prayers, the old demons and heroes, seem to get out of focus. Obviously, the normal order and the full stop of all human history was 2006, a year in which everything came together – corporate profits popping, median household incomes stagnating, the great warriors freer than ever before from the bonds of the Demon Regulation and the Demon Taxman. Now, however, with every month another half a million people sliding down the chute of darkness and into the netherworld of unemployment (surely, of course, by their own choosing – in general, the proles are inexplicably lazy, and the only way to get them to work is either to beat them or to lower their wages), some of the priests are starting to Doubt. Uwe Reinholdt’s heartfelt post begins with a survey of the faith:

“If, like every university, the American Economic Association had a coat of arms, its obligatory Latin banner might read: “Est, ergo optimum est, dummodo ne gubernatio civitatis implicatur.” (”It exists, therefore it must be optimal, provided that government has not been involved.”)

With only minor injustice, one may take this as the overarching mantra to which the core of the economics profession marches. Government is accorded a beneficial role in this vision only to provide purely public goods, such as national defense; to remove private-market imperfections, such as monopoly power on either side of the market; or to deal with so-called spill-over effects from private decisions, which economists call “externalities.” These exceptions aside, unquestioned belief in the sagacity, efficiency and beneficence of private markets reigns supreme.”

Reinholdt searches about for an answer to the problem that this credo seems to have failed. He doesn’t search about with the tools of his trade, and ask whether the intimacy between economic departments and the financial services sector, into which most economics students are tidily bundled, might have had something to do with it. Instead, he turns to behavioral psychology, and in particular, groupthink. LI doesn’t wholly disagree. Self-interest is never a bedrock explanation, since the self and the interest are constructions made out of glue, routine, dreams, sweats, traffic, boredom, and exorcisms – thus the tightness of the array of economic departments and the financial services sector is needs a stronger poem to explain it. But here is Reinholdt’s theory:

“If groupthink is the cause, it most likely is anchored in what my former Yale economics professor Richard Nelson (now at Columbia University) has called a ”vested interest in an analytic structure,” the prism through which economists behold the world.

This analytic structure, formally called “neoclassical economics,” depends crucially on certain unquestioned axioms and basic assumptions about the behavior of markets and the human decisions that drive them. After years of arduous study to master the paradigm, these axioms and assumptions simply become part of a professional credo. Indeed, a good part of the scholarly work of modern economists reminds one of the medieval scholastics who followed St. Anselm’s dictum “credo ut intellegam“: “I believe, in order that I may understand.”

An inference drawn from the profession’s credo is that private markets invariably are self-correcting and are driven by rational human beings whose careful decisions serve to allocate scarce resources efficiently — that is, these decisions maximize a nebulous thing economists call “social welfare.”

“Social welfare” on this view is thought to increase when those who gain from a change in the economy — e.g., a corporate restructuring or deregulation of the financial sector or increased foreign trade — gain more from the change than those who lose from it, even if the gainers had already been wealthy before the change and the losers poor. Thus, few economists were troubled by the explosion of executive compensation on Wall Street or elsewhere in corporate America. It was just the efficient market at work, rewarding these executives for the “value” they were creating.”


What does LI see here? Is it a perception, however distant, of the mangle of inequality? Oh that mangle, how it throbs in the background of the Zona! It is, of course, too sacred and awful to approach directly – after all, it might be that the mangle is producing us as we write! It could be the dreamer that dreams our dream!

“As far as diagnoses of economic trends and predictions about the future are concerned, the profession’s preferred analytic structure and the groupthink it begets might work superbly well on planet Vulcan, whence hails the utterly logical Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame.”

This, of course, show that even in the dark night of the soul, the priests still believe. They believe they have the keys to heaven and hell. What they call rational is rational, what they call irrational is irrational, let heaven and earth fade away. On the planet Vulcan, in a pleasingly closed system, their poems work! LI, however, must dissent. They were sold bogus keys by hucksters, what they call rational and irrational aren’t descriptions of the mind’s superb adapting to circumstances, but instead, looked at closely, are actually mummies, tightly wrapped and deoxidized, discovered under the Chicago pyramids in 1898, and no system depending on the AEA’s pube Manichianism will last for any length of time on any planet you care to name.

As for my prediction - oh reader, no bone will be unplucked by the Zona! Including yours and mine.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Queen of the fern




What becomes a legend best? This was the hook of an old furrier advertising campaign, famous for showing Liliane Hellman in a mink stole. But the hook deserves a better fate than to go to advertising heaven in a chorus of skinned weasels. For what becomes a legend best is a bad end, which is what happened to Olympe de Gouges, that fabulous existence, the bastard daughter of a seller of used clothes and – so she claimed – one of the great 18th century literary talents, although she named no names. Others claimed Louis XV. In fact, Gouges’ downfall was due to her strenuous and heroic advocacy for Louis Capet, who she was by no means willing to see led to the guillotine. Was this an act of sisterly sympathy? No, it was the common sense of genius. As the anarchist Malatesta said, a century later, far better kill a chicken than a king, for at least you can eat a chicken. Which is pretty much the definitive argument against all capital punishment, if you ask me.

How is a woman of such doubtful origins not to get lost in the bog? It is another case of the encounter of the third life and the adventurer’s character. She started out marrying a rich merchant when she was merely 15 – an unusually young age in a country where the average age of marriage for someone of Gouges’ class was twenty five. She was more than fortunate, though, in her marital choice – not only did they have a child right away, but the rich merchant conveniently died, like an inconvenient secondary in one of Angela Carter’s fairy tales. One of her biographers – Lairtuilliers – claims that she was particularly adept at the game of decamptivos – like Lotte’s game in Sorrows of Young Werther, a surprisingly crude and childish affair. It consisted of someone, elected to be King of the Fern, saying decamptivos – which would make all guests, who were grouped into couples, scatter out of sight. They had to stay out of sight for fifteen minutes. If they were late coming back, the king would fine them. Of course, one assumes the fifteen minutes were spent in kissing and groping, but just putting off and putting off clothes would take enough time to make more extensive sex unlikely.

Lairtuillier includes an almost unbelievable claim – except that everything about Olympe is quasi-unbelievable:

“But she had not yet arrive at that stormy phase in her life, and it was necessary that before that time, another demon took hold of her: that of letters. I can affirm, writes M. Dulaure in the Sketches, that madame de Gouges, author of novels and plays, did not know how to read or write, and dictated her productions to her secretaries. “They never taught me anything,” she says somewhere; raised in the countryside, where French was badly spoken, I didn’t know the principles; I didn’t know anything, and I made a trophy of my ignorance; I dictated with my soul, never with my mind. The natural seal of genius is on all of my productions.” The public didn’t completely agree with the last part of this opinion. But we are going to see that this woman, whose vocation was so strongly marked by revolutionary crises, of whose nature it was to be all action and speech, and who seemed to be made for nothing other than mounting to the political assault, knew also, to use the expression of Sand, how to throw her soul outside herself and lend it to the heroes of the drama.” [54-55]
The idea that she couldn’t read or write is common to her story, as told by the nineteenth century historians. Michelet says the same thing, and all attribute this fact to… her own testimony. In the preface to her place, The corrected philosopher, she writes:

“I don’t have the advantage of being educated; and as I have already said, I know nothing. I will thus not take the title of author, although I have already been announced to the public by two plays which they have very well received. Thus, not being able to imitate my colleagues by either my talents or my pride, I listened to the voice of modesty which completely agrees with me.”

O O, but what becomes a legend most is that the legends never agree. More recent reseach has turned up quite a different story about Olympe de Gouges. A good place to start is the excerpts, taken from a biography of Guillotine, written by Henri Pigaillem, which he presents on his blog. She was the daughter of a butcher and a washerwoman, but her grandfather was wealthy enough, and the family, the Gouzes, were close to a local noble family in Montauban – Pigaillem claims that she received some training by the nuns, and it does seem unlikely that the family would have left their daughter illiterate. She married to her father’s partner at 15 and didn’t like the blessed state of matrimony, so, as in a Tom Waits ballad, she encountered a man who had to do with the riverboats and took off with him to Paris. Jacques Biétrix de Rozières. Being quite beautiful, she made use of her beauty to become a kept woman, and king of the fern be damned if she stayed the extra fifteen minutes in the shadows beyond the other players. Born Marie Gouze, she renamed herself something more pompous and personal. At thirty she decided to become a writer – and the story that she was illiterate is likely an exaggeration, for by this point she’d spent fifteen years in good, educated company. Megan Conway’s essay on Olympe de Gouges tries to sort through what is legendary and what is not about a woman who wrote forty plays, numerous fictions, and of course many pamphlets. Gouges might have received some help – she was a close friend, if not lover, of Louis-Sebastian Mercier, for instance – but she also liked to put herself on display as a Rousseau-ist type, sowing doubts about her education. Conway concludes that it is unlikely that she couldn’t read, and likely that she was at least literate, although she surely also dictated to secretaries. Conway writes that her disconcerting vanity, the way all general topics are interrupted by her particular peeves, makes it hard to read her since she was “so undeniably obnoxious.”

Olympe de Gouges, at this distance, has been wrapped in the perfumed saliva of the human rights type, who celebrate her as a feminist and ignore, as best they can, her outsider status and her fidelity to a creed laid down, she thought, by Rousseau – which might be paraphrased, via Kerouac, as first moral judgment, best moral judgment. It is extremely hard to say if she really dictated her works – surely, in 1793, it was a little difficult to find secretaries for the job – but “dictation” of a sort was certainly at the center of her pamphleting, her posters, her letters to the assembly, her violent taunting of Robespierre. What came out of her mouth was like a revelation, and she would be its prophet and martyr. She would be the Queen of the Fern in the streets of Paris in 1793. And she would die gloriously, her blood rising up to pull down and utterly destroy her murderers.
Another outsider saint.

demography and poetry

On July 4, 1793, a group of children coming from the faubourg Saint-Antoine shelter for foundlings paraded before the national convention in order to thank the deputies for the recent law that promised the principle of rights of succession to natural children. “You have shown yourself fathers in rendering to them the rights that they lost in being born in a manner one has always regarded as illegitimate,” declared the teacher of the children. “You did more: you have returned them to the social body… You have established the base of government upon equality.” In a few words, in its fashion, the Convention gave body to its promise. The astonishing and controversial law of 12 brumaire Year II (2 November 1793) accorded to illegitimate children, when they were recognized by their parents, rights of succession equal to those of legitimate children. The same law implicitly suppressed the customary right which permitted single mothers or their progeniture to petition for action in recognition of paternity in order to obtain a food pension.” - Susan Desan, What is a father? Illegitimacy and paternity of the Civil Code of Year II, Annales, 57:4 935.

So far, LI’s discussion of the issue of free love seems to follow the plot lines of various nests of gentle folks. In particular, the romantic movement in Germany as well as in England seems, when one examines it, an astonishingly close knit affair, with almost all participants being at one to two degrees separation from each other. It is this closeness which makes the history of German literature during its classical period seem so very much like a People magazine article about marriages and divorces among today’s young stars. It is a “small world” network. And yet, of course, it is operating in a much larger world – that Georg Forster ends up dying in Revolutionary Paris, writing his fascinating defenses of the French Revolution as a sort of embodiment, on the social plane, of physical laws (nobody at the time was more fascinated by the transfer of the term revolution from physics to society), connects, by one degree of separation, a generation of South Sea exploration, Tahiti, Captain Cook, and the extreme limit of the older form of imperialism to the new order with startling abruptness – it is by their degrees of separation that the poetry of social history is made by its unconscious agents.

In order to breath, however, LI has to periodically refocus. We’ve chosen free love as an ideology in the making, and love and suicide as two expressions of it, in order to bring us close to the conflicts that went into the birth and development of the culture of happiness. Of course, the participants did not think of themselves as particularly contesting happiness. Only in retrospect does one see how they diverged – as though separated by magic, magnetic fingers – from the bourgeois main. But that main itself was certainly involved in the wreck of the ancien regime – or one might say that it came through the fire as a new creature entirely. No salamander – but something more like a phoenix.

Desan rightly points out the conjunction of a seemingly progressive reform coupled with the collateral casualty suffered by a traditional usage – a “superstition”, if you will. Desan found that the implementation of the law, in fact, was rare – she used the Calvados department as her data base – and its terms confusing. LI suspects that the law is not only to be associated with the Terror, but to the strange rise, towards the end of the 18th century, in illegitimate births, coupled with the ‘dechristianization” of death that Paul Veyne has pointed out – orienting points that hint at a largescale collapse of beliefs across Europe.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Things fall apart.


- Edvard Munch, Death of Marat



According to no less an authority than Josiah Royce, to understand the philosophy of Schelling, one must understand Caroline Michaelis, his wife. In 1792, when she joined Therese Huber’s household, she was still Caroline Boehmer, recently widowed. Already August Wilhelm Schlegel was obsessed with her – and already she felt herself puzzingly superior to him, an intuition she was never to overcome. Later, after the occupation by the French and the counter-occupation by the forces of reaction, later, after Therese had fled to Strassbourg (which is when, apparently, she wrote Georg that she was leaving him for Hubner), after Georg left for Paris and received the condemnation of almost the entire German intelligentsia (poor mistaken Forster, Wilhelm Humboldt signed), and that after Therese might have written Caroline a letter giving her a green light for Caroline’s own affair with Georg, after the pregnancy with the unknown father, probably a French office, after being released from Mainz and exiled from her native town of Gottingen as a danger to morals and public order, she would be ‘rescued’ by Schlegel and cozened, cozening herself, into an loveless marriage, which broke up on the rocks when she finally met the man she did love, the young philosopher, Schelling. Caroline, it seems, spread her own version of what happened between Therese and Georg.

This pattern of split ups, rumor, and leftist politics is going to fasten to free love from the revolutionary period onward. The great charge against free love is its fissility – just as the great charge made against bourgeois love, from the standpoint of free love, is its creeping dissolution of the amorous impulse, which decays in the acids of repetition and over-familiarity. They fuck you up, your Mom and Dad. Love loses its courage, that side of its character that is a perpetual test. The family withdraws into its comforts, loses its curiosity and generosity, becomes fasco-tropic. Or as Shelley puts it later in the Notes on Queen Mab:

“Not even the intercourse of the sexes is exempt from the despotism of positive institution. Law pretends even to govern the indisciplinable wanderings of passion, to put fetters on the clearest deductions of reason, and, by appeals to the will, to subdue the involuntary affections of our nature. Love is inevitably consequent upon the perception of loveliness. Love withers under constraint: its very essence is liberty: it is compatible neither with obedience, jealousy, nor fear: it is there most pure, perfect, and unlimited, where its votaries live in confidence, equality, and unreserve.

How long then ought the sexual connection to last? what law ought to specify the extent of the grievances which should limit its duration? A husband and wife ought to continue so long united as they love each other: any law which should bind them to cohabitation for one moment after the decay of their affection would be a most intolerable tyranny, and the most unworthy of toleration. How odious an usurpation of the right of private judgement should that law be considered which should make the ties of friendship indissoluble, in spite of the caprices, the inconstancy, the fallibility, and capacity for improvement of the human mind. And by so much would the fetters of love be heavier and more unendurable than those of friendship, as love is more vehement and capricious, more dependent on those delicate peculiarities of imagination, and less capable of reduction to the ostensible merits of the object.
The state of society in which we exist is a mixture of feudal savageness and imperfect civilization. The narrow and unenlightened morality of the Christian religion is an aggravation of these evils. It is not even until lately that mankind have admitted that happiness is the sole end of the science of ethics, as of all other sciences; and that the fanatical idea of mortifying the flesh for the love of God has been discarded. I have heard, indeed, an ignorant collegian adduce, in favour of Christianity, it's hostility to every worldly feeling!*
But if happiness be the object of morality, of all human unions and and disunions; if the worthiness of every action is to be estimated by the quantity of pleasurable sensation it is calculated to produce, then the connection of the sexes is so long sacred as it contributes to the comfort of the parties, and is naturally dissolved when its evils are greater than its benefits.”


If we spread the deck of cards, circa 1793 to 1893, what houses do we see? The Forsters, the Shelley-Owens, the Herzens. Oda Krohg-Hans Jaeger. The Przybyszewskas. Blok-Bely.

...
Love generates two overlapping and yet contradictory semiotic fields. In one field, love is the essence of liberty. “Love withers under constraint: its very essence is liberty” wrote Shelley – variations of the same phrase are doubtlessly to be found in the letters of the whole generation of romantic writers. All other choices are determined, more or less, by need. Love, though, is the very angel of free will, bursting forth from the casements of the heart in one spontaneous moment, sword upraised. Love in this field, then, is the opposite of need, and those things which bear the mark of need, either physical or social, are either ignored or subsumed in the presence of true love. Both sex and money fall under this law. If we confine ourselves to this field, we could say that free love aligns itself in perfect opposition to the old libertinism, the old eighteenth century materialism. That free love demands the free giving and taking of sexual delight by no means affects this anti-sensual and anti-social turn. In the eighteen century, the sexual arrangements of the great aristocrats gradually flowed into the great bourgeois households and opinions, but they brought forth romantic love, as the enemy of that calculation, of that agreeableness – and beyond that, the antithesis of libertinism, free love.

On the other hand, another semiotic field folds over the one of liberty. “Love is inevitably consequent upon the perception of loveliness”, Shelley also wrote. The old story is that love does not come out from the heart as the central identifying act – it has, instead, an exterior power all its own, and imposes itself. If this is freedom, it is a freedom that gravitates to metaphors of captivity. If in this field, the beloved isn’t necessary the way satisfying a sexual appetite is necessary, this is because the beloved exists in a space beyond physical necessity. This second field plays around the edges of the first one, and out of the interference between the two there gradually emerges images not of the angel of sex, but of the vampire, the femme fatale.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

a humble suggestion for a whole new model of Value at Risk


- Alfred Kubin

Sunday’s article by Joe Nocera about the rise and apparent fall of Values at Risk models, which were used by banks, hedgefunds, ponzi schemes and assorted big and little fish, as well as their captive regulators, to justify mad and bad leverage, has caused a lot of commenting on the financial blogs – Yves Smith, hat treasure, provided, as usual, the hectoring chorus, with that radiant skepticism which always sets apart the Wall Street dissident from the usual greed jughead, seeing in Nocera’s simplifications that cool anaesthesia of conventional wisdom which, at the moment, is the way the financial press has been self-medicating itself. It is a story that will no doubt stretch on for years – the story of how everything will return to what it used to be after a few knobs are pushed, a few wires are connected.

The model talk is, to an extent, disingenuous, dancing around the question of whether we would really want a financial system that sucks up such appreciable amounts of capital for the purpose of making a very few people very rich. The financial system is, at best, built upon rents – in itself, it adds little to the prospects of humankind. And, of course, when it swells into a force similar to that which has poisoned our culture and way of life since the early nineties, no small benefit it adds will balance the barbarization that it produces, the insect like calculation it introduces into every crevice and hole of our lives. Teaching the insects to enjoy the insecticide is, of course, an old rule in elite governance, but there are limits!

However, instead of a model that takes transforms non-linear processes into a pleasingly single number, good to use over the whole portfolio of security instruments, LI would suggest that Wall Street look to literature for a better model. Most notably, Balzac’s story of the Peau de Chagrin. Chagrin is usually translated as Wild ass – The Wild Ass’s skin is George Saintsbury’s translation. It is a story ripped from today’s headlines, so to speak. Raphael, the protagonist, is a young man who has lived so largely that he is now bankrupt. One day, thinking about suicide, he goes into an antiquary’s shop and finds a skin, upon which is printed, in Sanskrit, the following message:

“Possessing me thou shalt possess all things, but they life is mine, for God has so willed it. Wish, and they wishes shall be fulfilled; but measure they desires, according to the life that is in thee. This is thy life, with each wish I must shrink, even as they own days. Wilt thou have me? Take me. God Will hearken unto thee. So be it.”

Which means, basically, that every wish shrinks the talisman, and every diminishment of the talisman diminishes the number of days left to the wisher. The wishes, the shrinkage, and death will all combine in one moment. The antiquary, of course, tries to warn Raphael from his own exotic experience (“Yes, I have seen the whole world. I have learned all the languages, lived after every manner. I have lent a Chinaman money, taking his father’s corpse as a pledge, slept in an Arab’s tent on the security of his bare word, signed contracts in every capital in Europe, and left my gold without hesitation in savage wigwams”), but of course Raphael is not to be moved by the cautiousness of an earlier generation.

Well, the U.S. economy has been one enormous Peau de chagrin. And last autumn we decided to re-write the contract, wish back the wishes. It is as if one of the wishes could be to make the talisman grow back again. But this is the limit of the contract. One can’t contract to enjoy the wishes and then wish that the conditions be changed. They go together. The rule of talismans are impervious to the chiseling of logicmongers and traders. We watch the traders hang on, though, hang on and on to their precious skins. One more wish. Bring back the effortless profits! The bonuses! Seize the money from somewhere! Bring on the dancing, captive economists, let them predict good times!

"Quite so," said the man of science. "I understand. The remains of any
substance primarily organic are naturally subject to a process of
decay. It is quite easy to understand, and its progress depends upon
atmospherical conditions. Even metals contract and expand appreciably,
for engineers have remarked somewhat considerable interstices between
great blocks of stone originally clamped together with iron bars. The
field of science is boundless, but human life is very short, so that
we do not claim to be acquainted with all the phenomena of nature."

"Pardon the question that I am about to ask you, sir," Raphael began,
half embarrassed, "but are you quite sure that this piece of skin is
subject to the ordinary laws of zoology, and that it can be
stretched?"

"Certainly----oh, bother!----" muttered M. Lavrille, trying to stretch
the talisman. "But if you, sir, will go to see Planchette," he added,
"the celebrated professor of mechanics, he will certainly discover
some method of acting upon this skin, of softening and expanding it."


Monday, January 05, 2009

the revolution of ugly men

Events in Mainz in 1792 (continuing the thread broken off before I went to mexico)

In 1792, Georg Forster had ended up in Mainz, a city in Hesse. The region had become a conflict zone between the French revolutionary armies and the various armies of the coalition formed under the terms of the Brunswick manifesto, to rescue the ancien regime, i.e. the house of Bourbon.

Forster was overworked as the head of the archive and library. At the beginning of 1792, he had not taken a public political stance, although in private letters he expressed a clear sympathy for the Jacobins. He was hiding from his wife Therese the exact extent of his indebtedness, which was crushing – Georg Forster was never a prudent man when it came to cash.

Therese seems to have been emotionally and intellectually of the left. Geiger, her biographer, in 1909, found this so scandalous that he tried to mitigate it by claiming that Therese was Forster’s ‘pupil’. It was far more likely she was his comrade. This marriage and its failure has attracted a host of commentators who have puzzled themselves over the fact that Therese left Georg for another man, and yet the two seemed to rely on each other even after the separation. The solution – that their sexual incompatibility did not hinder their affinity with each other on the basic level of friendship – seems too shocking to propose – especially for those who want to tell a story of betrayal. But Therese seems to have cared for Georg, although she didn’t love him.

The man she did love was Ludwig Ferdinand Huber, a Prussian official and intimate of Schiller. Therese met Huber through Forster, in 1788. In 1790, Huber was living with the married couple. Therese was moving in a direction taken by her mother – who lived with her lover in the house of her husband:

We stood in a doubtful relationship one to another for 1 ½ years. In the beginning I pushed him away, everything now came together, he wanted to forget [his relationship to his fiancé, Dorothea Stock], and a miserable doctor pulled him away from the border of the grave. The noble, humane Forster saw a lot in the young man, drew him nearer, I became used to him, he saw me for a year and went through all the gradation of feeling, my unhappiness strengthened my love for him – although I though of none – finally circumstances offered a hand. I don’t know in which moment, before we could guess ourselves, he had exposed to me his relationship with that girl. I pondered the thing and found decisively the result: he must confess to her that he didn’t love her any more, that time had changed his feeling, that he had no more rights upon her heart. … “ As Therese says, it took 2 ½ years for Huber to come to this point.

Some biographers have said that Therese Huber used her status, when Forster was dead, to suppress much of the information about what was happening in Mainz in 1792.

If the scene was not loaded for an explosion yet – a disaffected couple, sickly children, an overworked world famous intellectual, the French revolutionary army in the area, the wife’s lover in the house – into this scene came Caroline Michaelis.
Why Therese would invite her school friend Caroline, lately widowed, to stay with the household in Mainz is a puzzle. Or perhaps it isn’t – perhaps Therese, out of fairness, wanted Georg to have a lover too. Although Georg was not sexually faithful, apparently he had sex in the approved way, with lower class girls.

Caroline was of course as strong willed as Therese. Caroline’s letters from Mainz give another account of the Forster-Huber household. It is a sign of how narrowly the circles intersect that he chief correspondent was Meyer, the writer who had been Therese’s admirer – who “took” her virginity from her, according to Therese in an ambiguous reference. Surely Caroline knew about that. Even before she went to Mainz,she had written to Meyer: “I have never depended on her friendship – among women, there can be none.”

Soon Caroline is writing in a more sympathetic way about Georg. In particular, she writes a letter linking the ugly men of the revolution – Mirabeau, ostensibly – with her own “beauteous” figure. Strikingly, Caroline “reads” herself into her situation – which has forever been the subject of speculation – with Georg by reading Mirabeau’s famous at the time letters to his lover, Sophie, of which she writes to Luise, her correspondent, that she should read them, except that she imagines Luisa won’t have time, and won’t read in bed, being more inclined to sleep, and is too “good” for a “ugly monster” [hassliche Bosewicht] as the extraordinary Mirabeau was, who had virtues and talents enough to supply a thousand normal people, and too much true intelligence to seriously be a monster, as one can conclude out of particular features. He may have been ugly, he says that often enough in the letters – but he loved Sophie, for women certainly don’t love the beauty of men – and yet the ugly man imposes himself through his exterior on the unruly masses…”

We remember, of course, the striking ugliness of Georg Forster. And that, too, of Chamfort. A revolution of ugly men.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

from the other shore




My friend R., M.’s husband, is skeptical of my book. Unfortunately, at one point I described my project as “against happiness” – which is true in a complicated sense. Still, R. quotes that back at me – he has a good ear for the ridiculous things I say. And that phrase certainly goes against R.’s New Left politics.

On New Years Eve, we were all in Malinalco. Chepe has a country house there. I’d previously been down there in 2005. It is a compound of three houses – one is Chepe and Tania’s house, one is a guest house, and one is the house that Tania’s mother lives in. It is a perfect place for long, wordy afternoons, as though cut from a Tom Stoppard play. We all drink, smoke and snack, waiting for dinner, which will be the trout M. bought from the market about half a mile away. The kids throw each other into the cold swimming pool behind Tania’s mother’s house – we can hear them shriek. Friends and relatives show up, say hi, disappear.

M., in the hammock, complains to me that the beginning of the Sorrows of Werther, which she is thinking of teaching to her students this semester on my recommendation, is too lachrymose. Why did I suggest it? I make a few suggestions as to what is historically important in Werther. R. interjects that Werther is not new – that the treatment of love ending in suicide is prefigured in the medieval romance literature, as Denis de Rougemont shows. And he says, Werther is a jerk.

M. says she isn’t going to teach her class that her husband thinks Werther is a jerk. Who cares if R. thinks Werther is a jerk?

Tatiana draws up a chair. She enjoys the fuss R., M. and I are making. She doesn’t say much, but smokes and watches. I reply that there is something different happening in Werther than, say, in the Arthurian romances. One has to have a sense for how history enters the system of the passions. That, I say, has to do with the synthesis between a sentiment, a situation, and a sanction – I reference Durkheim and Ogien. It is in the forging of these syntheses, in the interstices, that we can make a history of the passions possible. So, in particular, we should take the household demographic situation of Europe in the 18th century, which is much different than in the eleventh century, and use it as a reference for understanding how certain syntheses produce sentiments. In particular, with the love-choice marriage, the question arises whether love is the kind of thing described by a longer synthesis, or whether shorter, intense syntheses are at its base.

But R. is not convinced by this, and insists that Werther nevertheless represents an old, Christian thematic of coupling love with death. And that, he says, is a reiteration of an old familiar nihilism, which buffers all the old institutions. What he demands, he says, by way of Marx, Nietzsche and Deleuze, is not my syntheses, which all fall under the notion of the negation of the negation, but an affirmation of an affirmation – love affirmed as it is, in life. We have to get past the clutter of guilt and shame that have been built around the life processes.

My problem with this, I say, is that it is the wrong way to start the investigation. Our material should first be seen as it is, as it is performed, materialized in performance. Whether I reject the coupling of life and death or not, as a social phenomena, the thematic exists. I’m more interested in how to account for it so that I can see how it changes.

I don’t disagree with you from the view of the historian, R. says.

At this point, a couple appears in the yard, coming from Tania’s mother’s house. Hola, everybody says. I say, we are talking about love and happiness. Tatiana laughs.

ps - my review of Patrick Tyler's history of U.S. foreign relations with the Middle East since Eisenhower was published today here.