“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, April 30, 2010

poetry and the savage

Two days ago, I was having coffee with a friend. This particular friend is an expert on recent and avant garde American poetry. Unlike her, I know very little about American poetry after Berryman and Lowell. So she was patiently asking me why I was so sniffy about Jerome Rothenberg or Charles Bernstein, and other carriers of the torch passed down from Pound and Stein.

In response to which, I am trying to read more of these poets.

However, in the course of our discussion, I did say something that wasn’t absolutely ignorant.

I said this. There’s a story Yuri Lotman tells in Universe of the Mind about a Russian mathematician who advertised that he was going to give a talk on the geometry of dressmaking. Naturally, the audience for this talk filled up with dressmakers and tailors. Finally the great man arrived, ascended the podium, unfolded his manuscript and began: for the purposes of this talk, let us assume that the human body is perfectly spherical.

There was a great rush for the exits by the dressmakers and the tailors.

My loyalties are divided between the audience and that mathematician. Similarly, my loyalties are divided between one tradition in writing and the experimental writers and poets. On the one hand, I, like the tailors and dressmakers, find it a little absurd to mix together the highly theoretical and the pragmatic – and writing is, on one level, as pragmatic as spreading jam on toast. Thus, when an avant garde writer seems more interested in the theory of what he or she is writing than the product itself, it seems absurd.

On the other hand, it is just as absurd to think that the mathematician is wrong. Far from it! For unlike jam, which comes from fruit, water and sugar, and bread, which comes from wheat, writing comes from somewhere else. A nineteenth century positivist would say that it comes from the brain, and think that he has thereby said something scientific and true. But this is like saying it comes from space, or from time. It is not so much true as a truism that gets in the way of a problem - and thus is the enemy of the true.

The standard history of literary criticism tells us that Mallarme introduced ‘theory’ into poetry – as writing turned to its material and metaphysical circumstances in order to go on.

I don’t have a quarrel with the story that Mallarme and Rimbaud make an inflection in poetry. But lets not be provincial. It has not escaped the notice of any human who learns how to write and read that something – ungraspable – is going on here. In the seventeenth century, European explorers and settlers began to distinguish ‘civilization’ on the basis of writing, distinguishing themselves as possessors of the book from those who did not write. This division is hard to justify – the supplements and codicils added to this story have long ago been unlocked by Derrida. It is in the history of the downfall of that literate/uncivilized distinction that avant garde poets – cousins of my Russian mathematician – make the most sense to me.

I will not end this post by judging between the tailors and the mathematician. How could I?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Another blog for the Middlesex Philosophy Department

Following in Nicole's and Nina's footsteps, I want to align this blog with saving the Middlesex University Philosophy department. But that isn't really enough. Saving it and not purging the amazingly bad and ludicrous Middlesex University Administration would mean that the Philosophy department would be nibbled to death. The administration has demonstrated that it is incompetent to run a university. What John Garner once said about the vice presidency applies in spades to the administration: they ain't worth a bucket of warm spit.

In a better world - the world that New Labour failed to install - this decision would lead to an investigation of the invidious business takeover of the public university system in the U.K. That investigation won't happen, and the better world that New Labour utterly failed to create is going to bite that party on the ass. It is dying of trivial sensationalized news stories, and seems - as per this boneheaded act, which could easily have been prevented - to want to alienate not only the working class, but the clerical class that is its main constituency. Great work, fellas! The story of the decline of the left is the story of leftist parties that 'compromised' to gain power, and in so compromising created the tailspin we are all amply suffering from.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Slouching towards Maslow's pyramid

There has been, as far as I can tell, no canonical study of how and why certain ideas – psychoanalysis, Maslow’s theory of needs, gestalt therapy – infiltrated into the precincts of that most American of sciences, organization science, and all its business school progeny. The ultimate American utopia is the corporation – those of us on the reservation outside of it just think of ourselves as the dreamers of the better future. But inside those corporate walls, that future is manufactured wholesale.

In 20th century America, war, organization and information systems formed the sinister matrix to which our best guides are still the great dark codexes: J.R., Gravity’s Rainbow, Flow my tears the policeman said. Randall Jarrett’s tailgunner glosses not simply the belly of the state at war, but the great human product of the 20th century, organizational man.

Maslow’s career, to be read properly, must be read by the flickering light common to incendiary bombings and the vast, flawless labyrinth of neon lights that track the corridors of skyscrapers and of insane asylums.

Early in his career, Maslow’s major research concern was what he called dominance. In a paper from 1937, The Comparative Approach to Human Behavior, he wrote:

“The writer some years ago was confronted with the problem of the relationships between dominance behavior, sex behavior, and social behavior. The attempt to study this problem in humans directly turned out to be a failure. The multiplicity of theories, the variability of concepts and of terminology, the sheer complexity of the problem itself, the impossibility of separating the superficial from the fundamental, all combined to make the project a baffling and even possibly an insoluble one.”

This is a rather odd methodological statement. Why should we posit special relationships between the behaviors he lists – or even take those behaviors (such as dominance behaviors) as given? Especially as, on his own account, there is a ‘variability’ of terminology and theory.

Dominance, here, is certainly the dominant pre-occupation. The paper suggests that the problem is one that we all know from the sciences – the problem of being ‘objective’. Maslow’s suggestion that we can get there by an indirect route – namely, comparison with the less ‘baffling’ behavior of primates – and so disentangle the bloody bonds of human behavior was, of course, in the post-war period amply taken up. Yet the method seems to make headway sideways, for what could make the behavior of primates less baffling when the original baffle is in the cultural construction of the terms of the problem?

“It is just this situation, e.g. complex of similarities and differences, that makes it possible for the psychologist to set up experiments in which the main variable factor is the relative presence or absence of cultural influence. If these cultural influences can be controlled out by experimentation which involves groups of humans and infra-humans, there is then promised an improved possibility of achieving greater understanding of what our primate inheritance may be.”

What could ‘control out’ cultural influences mean, applied to the highly culturally specific notion of experimentation? Maslow here is participating in the social sciences paradigm that seeks the ultimate Other – the Other who functions, paradoxically, as the silent parameter, void of all ‘cultural’ properties – for instance, the property of having a first-person status – and at the same time as the template for the social sciences subject.

However, his animal studies were only one wing of his project. The other wing went in the contrary direction – seeking to bar entrance to cultural influences by welcoming them, aiming for the dead center of normality.

Maslow, as Dallas Cullen and Lisa Gotell have studied Maslow’s sexological research. This research was directed towards understand ‘normal’ female sexuality. To get behind this problem, Maslow, curiously, culled out Lesbians, Catholics, blacks and all women who came from families whose fortunes were not in the upper 5 percent of the American income percentile from his research set. He interviewed the resulting selection of women, all students at Columbia University, and concluded that the dead center for which he had embarked had finally been hit. And thus he was able to pursue a problem he articulated in a journal jotting from 1960:

“the 2-fold motivation of women (1) to dominate the man, but (20 then to have contempt for him, go frigid, manifpulative, castrating, and (3) secretly to keep on yearning for a man stronger than herself to compel her respect, & to be unhappy, & unfulfilled & to feel unfeminine so long as she doesn’t have such a man.”

From experimenting on animals to the ghastly postwar obsession with the frigid bitch – this is, of course, the dark side of what appeared, in the sixties, to be a humanizing program. The social structure should satisfy the needs of the people – isn’t that really what marketing is all about?

Monday, April 26, 2010

what are human needs? The cold war perspective


… something is considered to be a need if its deprivation produces disease. – Abraham H. Maslow. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, 23

“Zum Leben aber gehört vor Allem Essen und Trinken, Wohnung, Kleidung und noch einiges Andere. Die erste geschichtliche Tat ist also die Erzeugung der Mittel zur Befriedigung dieser Bedürfnisse, die Produktion des materiellen Lebens selbst, und zwar ist dies eine geschichtliche Tat, eine Grundbedingung aller Geschichte, die noch heute, wie vor Jahrtausenden, täglich und stündlich erfüllt werden muß, um die Menschen nur am Leben zu erhalten.” – Marx, DI, 28

I’ve made this round of posts about productive and unproductive labor because I wanted to say something about the class structures that evolved out of the building of the artificial paradise. But the more I have been trying to grasp the relations, here – with the help of the story of the rise and fall of a perfumer, whose trade, from a certain moralizing point of view, has less ‘value’ than that of the peasant or the miner – the more I am muddying this small pond that I not only swim in, but have dug.

Marx grasped the fact that the capitalist epoch was one in which the fundamental class structure was reduced to a duality: the bourgeoisie, defined as the owners of capital, on the one side, and the proletariat on the other. The reduction of the three class structure of pre-modern traditional societies was not simply a matter of beheading the nobility – who, besides, as Arno Meyer pointed out (among others – Thomas Mann not least among them) survived the ancien regime and lasted well into the 20th century in Europe. Marx, however, noticed that they survived by a mixture of accommodation and force, as they had to not only adapt to the dictatorship of the bourgeois, but become, as it were, bourgeois. However, Marx is not and never was a rational choice thinker. He was thoroughly dialectical. The relationship between the two classes and their ‘interests’ is a dialectical one. The Great Transformation produced a long, long effect that primarily redefined all social functions with regard to both their relation to abstract labor time and the tendency to routinize all work functions. The latter is the stepchild of Marxist analysis – the ideal interchangeability into which the capitalist system forces all workers, whether as brain surgeons or as garbagemen, if often treated as though it were a secondary characteristic – or, when it is pointed out, is contrasted with the utopia of the dissolution of the division of labor in some gauzy way. This misses the firm grounding of alienation in the specific processes of capitalism. It misses the way that the worker’s “position” – Lage – is worsened, even if the worker’s wages go up. Marx began writing as the industrial revolution went into an accelerated phase, and the factory became the cutting edge work site. Unfortunately, in the twentieth century, the factory became fetishized by Marxists, to the extent that Eastern Europe became a sort of museum of anachronistic factories.

Marx, I believe, was not so much a great predictor as a great diagnoser of dialectical forces – he could feel the heartbeat in the social moment. One of his diagnoses was about imagining a time when the productive laboring force ‘supported’ a vastly greater number of unproductive workers and rentiers.

In thinking through the story of the Human Limit, I have, so far, ignored the story of human need – and the notion that a social and political arrangement doesn’t just exist to make humans happy – but to satisfy their ‘needs’. The high moment for ‘humanistic’ Marxism, in the fifties and sixties, was premised upon the idea that the fair society is one in which economic and social arrangements were aligned to maximally satisfy human needs – which, of course, entailed a lot of discussion of human needs. Abraham Maslow enters into this discussion from the side of animal ethology – which became a very popular reference points for some of the sixties theorists, like Bateson or Deleuze and Guattari. And certainly Derrida, who was more finicky about such things, takes the notion of the double bind from Bateson.

So I’m thinking that I am going to shift from Marx-Balzac here to doing a little archaelogy work on needs in Maslow and the culture of the fifties and sixties. A jump forward to make a jump backwards. A knight’s move.