“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 30, 2010

Mephistopheles and the image of the limited good

And the devil sings dut, da dut, dut ta dut dut da dut…

In the first act of the second part of Faust, the King opens his court to the complaints of his followers. Complaints, doleances, Goethe’s seen a few. While the second part of Faust is written in the midst of the reactionary years, the years of legitimacy, Goethe is well aware of the weakness of the whole schema of legitimacy, within which the advances of the bourgeoisie were – according to the best laid Burkean plans – to be absorbed into the organic tissue of a society based on tradition, religion, respect. Goethe himself has advanced into the elite of a very small state, and of course his genius – and even his vanity - is large enough to judge how small.

There is a thesis, advanced by Arno Mayer, that claims that the nineteenth century was not, as we sometimes like to think, the time of the Great Transformation – but rather saw only the gradual withering of the ancien regime. Although it may appear that Mayer’s thesis is contradictory to another recent thesis – that of Charles Tilley, which locates the start of capitalist relationships in Europe’s rural regions in the 17th century – both of them are reactions to the periodization advocated by a school going through Adam Smith to Karl Marx, which takes industrialization, and especially advanced heavy industry, to be at the very heart of the nineteenth century. Mayer has the figures: except for England, “agriculture persisted as the single largest and weightiest economic sector until 1914”; (34) furthermore, ‘until 1914 consumer manufacture outweighed capital goods industry in the nonagrarian sector of each national economy”. (35)

One should never take arms against a sea of statistics – because here Marxian ‘materialism’ will find itself well and truly drowned, as anybody who has perused the volume after volume of a certain kind of econometric Marxist history that proceeds with a sort of amnesia that what we are looking for are the relations of preduction, not board feet of pigiron produced in 1900. Mayer, I should say, is not one of those econometricians. I refer to him here in order to set up the tension between the spirit of the time and the time – a tension to which Derrida pays attention, under the rubric of a time out of joint, in the Specters of Marx. Although it is not Hamlet that is in question, here – the vengeance thematic is muted, and – for those who have the eyes to see it – put at the margin, where it becomes the larger thematic of Nemesis, of balance.

But again … the king has called together his councilors, and complaints have been made until the king asks his new fool for his complaints – and the fool – Mephistopheles – responds that he is a blithe spirit just to be here. He then surveys the complaints so far in this speech:

Where in the world is there not a lack of something?
The this, the that – well here it’s money that’s missing.
You aren’t going to pluck it from an ostrich, that’s true
Yet wisdom knows how to bring the deepest depths in view.
In mountain’s veins, under the base of walls we find
Gold that is coined, and the uncoined kind.
And you ask me – who will bring this all to light?
The force of human nature and his spirit’s fine flight.
(Okay, I took some liberties with that last line. So sue me.)

(Wo fehlt’s nicht irgendwo auf dieser Welt?
Dem dieß, dem das, hier aber fehlt das Geld.
Vom Estrich zwar ist es nicht aufzuraffen;
Doch Weisheit weiß das Tiefste herzuschaffen.
In Bergesadern, Mauergründen
Ist Gold gemünzt und ungemünzt zu finden,
Und fragt ihr mich wer es zu Tage schafft:
Begabten Manns Natur- und Geisteskraft.)

It is, as we would expect, man’s nature and spirit that causes the controversy. But let’s linger on the suggestion – which is held within the image of the limited good. For after all, what is the good of gold? Whether found as part of a treasure (under walls) or mined (from the veins of mountains), gold is an oddly medieval product upon which to bring the attention of man’s “spirit”. Although of course there were a number of gold rushes in the nineteenth century – California, Alaska, Australia – yet the gold rush was symbolic of the spirit of the age only in as much as it was a leveling wealth, a wealth that depended on the chance of discovery apart from social position (putting to one side – oh that side! – the indigenous people’s whose streams and land were calmly seized by the white male gold seekers). In an earlier post in which we first recognized the importance of the image of the limited good to explain the rise of the happiness society,- here we discussed German treasure hunting via an article by Johannes Dillinger and Petra Feld, Treasure-Hunting: A Magical Motif in Law, Folklore, and Mentality, Württemberg, 1606 –1770. We will leave that and the subsequent posts that followed it as allusions.

Unsurprisingly, it is at the moment in which the image of the limited good confronts the image of growth that the devil and all the specters pop up. About which more later.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Transmigration of the fool

The Money. The narcissism. The Artificial human.

All these themes, and so little time to go through the woods.

After a preface, we begin, in Act one of the second part of Faust, in the throne room of the Imperial Palace. The king greets his retainers who have come from far and wide, but notices one is missing: where is the fool?

And here a substitution happens which is not simply a routine from stock theater. It is one of those substitutions that will become symbolic for the nineteenth century playbook, one of those gestures in which Mann saw Goethe the wizard. As one secondary character tells another, the old fat fool – Fett-Gewicht – collapsed on the steps, drunk or dead, and was carted away. And on those steps a new fool has appeared – this one dressed richly, and not fat at all – a stave, someone says, to the old fool’s barrel – although this skinny fool is ‘fratzenhaft’ – full of pranks. A skinny fool is a sinister fool. We cycle through the transfigurations from Sancho Panza to Rambeau’s Nephew – which Goethe translated – to this moment.

For as we know as readers – reading the names assigned to the speeches, which the speakers don’t see – know, this is the very devil, Mephistopheles. Come lose from his sage, his Faust. The old rule says that for every sage there is a fool. But the loss of weight and the rich clothes indicate that there has been a change somewhere, there has been a distinct change in class position, in worlds.

That the substitution occurs on that place of transition between the up and the down – the stairs – is no accident. Mephistopheles in this scene will be, as it were, the very spirit of the steps.

Whom does each hear gladly named?
What nears the steps of your throne?
What has exiled itself?

Wen höret jeder gern genannt?
Was naht sich deines Thrones Stufen?
Was hat sich selbst hinweggebannt?

The uncanny, if Freud is right, starts with the ‘who’ becoming a what – the human becoming a female doll, the doll becoming the “who” who reveals her ‘what’ to her addled lover, thus of course driving him mad. The King correctly recognizes that his new fool is speaking in the fool’s chosen idiom of riddles, but not the what propounding the riddles. In any case, he accepts the substitution:

Mein alter Narr ging, fürcht’ ich, weit in’s Weite;
Nimm seinen Platz und komm an meine Seite.

My old fool has gone, I fear, beyond the beyond
Take his place and stand at my side

And as this scene makes its turn towards Geist and Geld, I’m going to make a turn too. First to this quote from Simmel’s Philosophy of Money.

“The division between subject and object is not so radical as the practical scientific world would make us believe about these categories subject otherwise to this completely legitimate division. The soul’s life [seelische Leben] begins rather in a circumstance of indifference, in which the I and its object remain still undivided, satisfying the impressions or ideas of the consciousness without it being the case that the bearer of this content has divided itself from itself. That in the determined, momentary real circumstance he has a subject that is to be distinguished from the content, that he has, that is at first an affair of a secondary consciousness, an afterthought analysis. The development obviously leads pari passu into the fact that the person says I to himself, and that he recognizes independently standing objects outside of this I. If metaphysics so often likes to tell us that the transcendental essence of being was to be absolutely one, beyond the subject-object opposition, its psychological pendant is found in this simple primitive fulfillment [Erfuelltsein] with relation to an idea content, as it is with children that don’t yet speak of themselves as I, and in a rudimentary manner this is to be observed occurring one’s whole life long. This unity, out of which the categories of subject and object first develop in the face of one another in a as yet to be explained process, appears to us subjective only because we encounter it after we’ve developed the concept of objectivity, and because we have no correct expression for that kind of unity, yet are accustomed to naming it after one of the onesided elements the co-effects of which appear in our subsequent analysis.”

And now let’s think a bit about narcissism.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

the grimoire of political economics

Damn - in an earlier version of this, I didn't notice that the stuff I wrote didn't copy to the blog. Sorry sorry sorry! The only thing that copied was the translation I made from Marx. Damn. Anyway, this is what the post is supposed to look like.

In the section of the Grundrisse that Marx’s editors – I believe entitled, The Method of Political Economics, Marx asks what it means to look at a nation from the political economic viewpoint.

It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete, thus, for example, to begin, in economics, with the population, which is the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production. Yet by a nearer observation this appears to be false. The population is an abstraction if I leave aside the classes of which it consists. These classes are an empty phrase when I don’t know the elements out of which they are made, for instance, wage labor, capital, etc. … For example, capital is nothing without wage labour, without value, money, price etc. Therefore, If I begin with the population, it would be a chaotic representation of the whole; and thus I through nearer analysis come upon ever simpler concepts; from this conceptualized concretum towards ever thinner abstractions, until I arrive at the simplest determinations. From there I commence the trip backwards until I finally final arrived at the population again, this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and connections. The first way is that which the economists took historically in the beginning… As soon as these individual moments [R: of value, division of labor, money] were more or less fixed and abstracted, the economic systems began, climbing up from the simple, such as labour, division of labour, need, exchange value, to the state, the exchange between nations and the world market. The latter is obviously the scientifically correct method. The concrete is concrete because it is the weaving together [Zusammenfassung] of many determinations, hence the unity of the manifold. In thought it appears as the process of the weaving together, as a result, not as a starting point, although it is really a starting point and thus also the starting point for intuition [Anschauung] and idea. In the first way, the full idea volatilizes into abstract determination; in the second, the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought.”

The path down and the path back up, the way of pins and the way of needs, the negative identity between forwards and backwards – LI has hammered on these ideas until we are afraid that, like a bad carpenter, we have crooked our nail. But it is a pattern we meet all too often among the nineteenth century aliens, who, looking back, have noted with horror that universal history somehow took a wrong turn. The method of political economy, here, looks – not accidentally – not only like an alchemical process a la Faust, but like exploration - and here, again, the epistemic operator that Foucault, strangely, passes over in silence, ‘discovery’, throws around its historical weight. To the source of tears, to the vital liquids, to the volatilized moment – such is the great work. What I’m calling weaving together might be better called, following this metaphoric, concentration as in the standard translation of the Grundrisse.

In a sense, what Marx did was follow Faust’s path of reversal – in the late thirties, writing his articles on windfallen wood, he started out – much like the beginning in this passage – with the state. The great abstraction of the state. Law and philosophy had taught him to regard the state as the fulcrum of society. What he learns, in the forties, is that the path he is on leads him to levels below the state – which no longer, logically, can be the fulcrum. He sinks down to the underworld of daily activity, of production and reproduction, in which the categories of the surface – for instance, of individuality – have no hold. And then he turns – realizing that this is the turn taken by political economists – and makes his way back to the surface. The philosophical mistake was to confuse the way this unrolls in one’s head – for it can unroll in no other social space – for the force that drives the whole. Invention is the tricky doeppelgaenger of discovery.