“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

Friday, September 18, 2009

an ass festival to start things off


Oh – if only I had the wings of angels, which are made of gold and good for purchases in most shopping centers and stores! But I have human limbs, and flesh is worth shit, so I bend over texts and correct them. I make suggestions. I must slave and bugger my own imagination, and fall behind every 8 ball that I set up. I would like to be the blogger equivalent of Babe Ruth, pointing to the stands, waiting for the next pitch. But this is not going to happen. I am, rather, the equivalent of some Pinter vaudevillian, full of bile and tags.

Still, I am a Sagittarian, and thus stubborn as a mule – or a jackass. I do want to keep going in this thread. And jackasses are, as a matter of fact, the subject of this post.

I have already written about asinine philosophy. The thread I am aching to pursue – the growth of police forces in the nineteenth century – should start, I think, with the story of a jackass.

The year is 1793. In Lyon, the forces of counterrevolution briefly seized the city. French soldiers loyal to the Convention have brought that freshet of the ancien regime down. During the brief period of white rule, some of Lyon’s most prominent Jacobins were cut down. The Convention sends two representatives to oversee the punishment of the town – Joseph Fouché and Collot d’Herbois, who take the post together to Lyon on November 7, 1793 (17 Brumaire).

Who were these two? Although Fouché had cast his lot with the Jacobin, he was not an enragé. In Nantes, where he grew up, he was trained in theology – which meant, in 1789, that he believe in precisely nothing. His real passion was balloons – but the revolution was at the door in Nantes. As Louis Madelin notes, he first thrust himself into prominence by communicating with Brissot – who, as we observed in last week, was almost certainly, at one time in his life, a police informer. But Brissot was now, of course, a power – forming a clique, with Condercet and Paine, among others. Brissot had particularly come out against slavery:

“The president of the club of the friends of the Constitution believed he was able to felicitate Brissot in the name of the society. Great movements in the city, where the trade in blacks constituted for many of the merchant marine a lucrative commerce; where – on the other side, more than one bourgeois – including Fouché – had plantations in Saint-Domingue, or counted friends there among the colonists that emancipation ruined. Before the general emotion, Fouche didn‘t hesitate: he retracted…”

And so Fouché, with the soul of Julien Sorel, advanced in the network of the Jacobins. Collot d’Herbois was different. Fouché’s biographer is suitably scathing about this character:

"An old actor, Collot had retained that character of noisy vanity, yet earth to earth, applied to little things, capable of a sensibility ceaselessly shocked by things, those manifestations of violent sentiments, often false, but sometimes so tragic, that he ended up, like a good ham, imposing on his own self, no longer discerning in himself the true from the false and the mask from nature. For the rest, a histrion as much as a tragedian, he passed from tears to laughter, amusing himself by terrifying the Jacobins by his indignant arias and turning about and making everybody laugh with his routines in bad taste. In the end, a middling ham, thrust into too vast a scene with a role in which they left him to figure out for himself his miserable improvisations. Add to this that he drank and ate, amused himself vulgarly, always drunk, quickly becoming an alcoholic, entertaining himself, as a stylish amateur of the backscene, with gourmet meals after playing the great scenes, and mixing with the drunks from capital wines the applause of the common seats.”

The French revolution, like all true revolutions, effortlessly created myths. -Or no, not effortlessly - but the effort is hidden behind the libidinal tugging on events, as in an animated cartoon in which, from an inkwell, there emerges a potent drop, that shakes itself into a figure, who takes up a pen and draws in all the parts of himself that he needs after fining his hand. As we have been emphasizing, the zone of adventure - not defined or captured by the grid of vocations or classes - exists as the reservoir of the modern, even as the modern devotes an increasing amount of time trying to repress that zone. And so these two, like Hermes and Dionysos, came to Lyon. The secret policeman and the actor – a couple that has had such a long, long career in our very lives! Haven’t they masturbated and betrayed us until we hardly exist any more?

But I wanted to get to the jackass. The government in Paris had made a few helpful suggestions about razing Lyon to the ground – but the secret policeman was certainly not going to do that. Fouché was the first in a long line of modern secret policemen who preserve, behind a career of crime, certain scruples. Beria, according to legend, finally pulled the plug on Stalin. And what better tool to do down a tyrant than his secret agent? That is, from the point of view of Nemesis. What eventually happened, as we know, was a horror. At a certain point, they simply lined up Lyonnais, in chains, and plowed them down with cannonshot – because there were too many to exterminate via firing squad.

Fouché’s biographer insists that, at first, Fouché thought he had devised a middle way.

"Before the ceremony, prelude ordered by the ex-oratarien [Fouché], one saw the two proconsuls go through the town, followed by a group armed with axes and picks, attack.. the crosses and statues, to disinfect the churches one by one, chasing out the constituional clergy and pillaging the altars. The old cult abolished with its relics and signs, one saw it emerge once again. The bust of Chalier [a murdered Jacobin], a savior god, appeared carried on a tricolor palanquin, flanked by an urn in which, by a pious illusion, one pretended to carry his ashes. The group stumbled along surrounded by a cohort that shouted to all of terrified Lyon, down with the aristos! Up with the republic! Up with the guillotine! Patriots followed carrying urns and chalices rifled from altars, and an ass covered with a cape and crowned with a mitre. Tied to his tail was a crucifix, a bible and the gospel. The three representatives of the republic were there, Collot, Laporte and Fouché, giving an official air to this irreligious ceremony. They went through the devastated religious city, and came to the place de Terraux. There they knelt before the bust of Chalier, then they spoke. Collot, swollen and solemn, mewed out a honorable amends, of which the originality was disputable. Savior God, see at your feet the nation lying on its face, asking for your pardon for the impious assassination of the best of men…. Manes of Chalier, be venged!… Fouché wept, you are no longer here, Chalier… [Laporte] was not used to either the stage or the podium, hesitated, and then said, death to the aristos. After this debauch of eloquence, a brazier was lit, a crucifix and a gospel was burnt, and the ass drank out of the calice extended to him.”

After this, the ass festival in Zarathustra is the height of sanity.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Marx and Malthus

The two people who have taught me the most about reading Marx over the last couple of years are a., Amie, whose essay on the German Ideology graced this blog (with a bonus pic of Bliss!), and b., N Pepperell at Rough Theory, whose blogposts are such excellent guides to reading Capital that they make fish sing and cats bark. And she is back, with this post about Marx and Malthus.

Monday, September 14, 2009

paper dolls

Fly, informer, spy, confidential agent, double agent, rat, louse, Schlamasse, squeak, squeeler. In 19th century England, it was the universal opinion that the French invented the spy system. We know that, at least for Europe, Napoleon invented the police system. Stendhal and Hazlitt’s Napoleon, the bringer of light, was perhaps the single most important figure in the modern history of European policing, since in the territories France conquered, and those governments which it controlled, Napoleon insisted on a modern police force. He himself had re-organized the urban gendarmerie under Fouche, and instituted a tighter police force in the countryside – and these innovations he pressed upon Saxony, Bavaria, the various Italian principalities. Under Napoleon, it is true, the gendarmerie were more militarized than they came to be by mid-century – that is, where they remained. But Prussia, that excellent copier of a state, soon was instituting its own urban and rural police forces.

“… who is there that disputes that intelligence respecting plots against the State in nine cases out often must arrive through polluted channels It can only be obtained from repentant traitors from accomplices or from informers Though there may be those whose minds are so philosophically turned that they wish all discoveries to be providential rather than employ such agents still I confess I must hold it prudent to employ human means to maintain human institutions.” – George Canning.

The period between the fall of Napoleon and the first reformist Whig government, in England – from 1815 to 1830, about – saw the reaction swallowed up by the new system. Stendhal, of course, saw this and recorded it in the Red and the Black – the spirit of Julien Sorel, who hides his reading of Napoleon and assumes a piety that nobody believes and everybody expects, brooded over Europe. As Napoleon’s police had, originally, mixed politics and security against crimes of property and person, so, too, did the successor police organizations. Vidocq is, famously, a sort of police god, a sort of Hermes of detectives, who crosses quite easily from criminal to cop and back.

“In what way of business were you your connection began or your began with Mr Thistlewood and Mr Watson and the other prisoners? I was in the figure making way. What do you mean by the figure making way? Such as figures for children what they call paper dolls which I took up myself? Where did you live At No 5 Newton street Holborn? That was your actual employment when your acquaintance with the prisoners began? It was. Did you not state to some of the prisoners that you were in great distress when your acquaintance began with them first? Yes I did. Were you in great distress? Yes I was. Were you ever in commitment before this time? No. Never. Upon no charge whatever? Commitment do you say? Í.. Yes I was. Were you ever at such a place as Guildford in the county of Surrey? Yes. How many times have you been in commitment or in custody before the present occasion? Twice." – Testimony of John Castle, police spy, in the Spa Fields Riot trial of James Watson.

Paper dolls. This, to borrow a term from Barthes, is the punctum, the extra reality of the surrealists, the fingerprint of Nemesis – the detail that both calls for and resists symbolization. A clue that is more than a link in the chain of causes, and less than a proof of anything. The material of history that resists the great suck and binding of universal history. What the gods do not know - our mortality. Something in it won’t give itself to meaning, to the police or the judges. And yet, of course, the judges and the police continue, they go on. John Castle, in this trial, was exposed as a government provocateur, who most likely got money from Lord Sidmouth’s minions, or some extra-governmental group formed by the government, spent it to make himself popular, and urged on the riot that ensued at Spa Fields. With the riot in hand, the government could pick up and prosecute the radicals it had targeted and hang them.

“But Adrastea holds a scale before even the true romantic character: she draws and line and speaks, saying: no further! Hermes was sent before the divine Achilles that he not misuse the slain body of his enemy, who was now only a man, a son and a brother. Every romantically happy person feels the rule in himself: not over the Rubicon! Here is the border. It is well when he recognizes or has a sentiment of this feeling in himself. We never love a hero more than when he knows how to measure himself in his fortune [Glueck] and uses it well. Then we, with him, feel that intensity of fortune; the Nemesis in us prophesies his happy future. To the eventurer [Ebenthuer] who doesn’t know this, to the Alcibiades who shortens the tails of all the dogs and overturns all the statues to Hermes so that all of Athens will speak of him, as with so many other of the Pucks of history who ride here and there in midday, without seeing that their fairy hour is long gone, to them we can’t even say farewell – for they vanish.” - Herder, Adrastea

And what happened to those against whom Castle testified?

The movies deceive us. The noose is knotted, the drop is sprung, the hanged man dies. But no, this is not how the hanged man dies. In Gatrell’s the Hanging Tree, he tells of the end of those another radical against whom a government spy testified in the Cato Street conspiracy case. Ings told the hangman “Now old gentleman, finish me tidily: pull the rope tighter, it may slip.” But:

“These precautions did little good, however. There was a common pattern in what ensued. As an early nineteenth century broadside representatively decalred, the noose of one man’s halter “having slipped to the back part of the neck, it was full ten minutes before he was dead.’So too at the very last Tyburn hanging in 1783: ‘the noose of the halter having slipped to the back part of the neck, it was longer than usual before he was dead… Ings struggled on the end of his rope for five minutes before he was still.”

Five minutes, ten minutes. Governor Wall, another spy spotted radical, fifteen minutes. Let the camera linger on that. Let five minutes go by as a man or woman is strangled by a slippery rope, hands tied behind him or her. The uterus bled, the oons of a man, his urine and shit, were expelled. And such shame was mixed with fortune, such Rubicons were crossed, as the culture of happiness was founded on the tombs of the adventurers.