“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, November 20, 2010

Three stories of invisibility – or Gyges wound and unwound

1. In the first chapter of Marc Shell’s Economics of Literature, The Ring of Gyges, he relates two stories about the King of Lydia, Gyges. Shell is interested in Lydia because, in Greek historiography and legend, Lydia was the birthplace of coinage, and Shell is looking for something like the primal scene of monetization.
What does this have to do with invisibility?
The logic of Shell’s chapter slowly brings together, through Greek texts, the power of the invisible and the power of money, or, more precisely, how money operates to introduce invisibility into society.

This is the context for his analysis of Gyges.

“It is not easy for us, who have used coinage for some twenty-five hundred years, to imagine the impression it made on the minds of those who first used it in their city-states. The introduction of money to Greece has few useful analogies.1° Tales of Gyges associate him with founding a tyranny in Lydia and with a power of being able to transform visibles into invisibles and invisibles into visibles. This power, as we shall see, is associated with new economic and political forms that shattered the previous world and its culture.”

Gyges was the subject of two different histories, Shell points out, in Herodotus and Plato. In Herodotus, the tale goes like this. “Candaules [the King of Lydia] fell in love with his own wife, so much that he supposed her to be by far the fairest woman in the world; and being thus persuaded of this, he raved of her beauty (eidos) to Gyges". In this version of the story, Gyges is a noble at King Candaules’s court. Candaules is so proud of her beauty that he becomes convinced that someone other than himself must witness it – Gyges. He accuses Gyges of not believing him, and thus orders Gyges to spy on the queen, his wife, when she is dressing. Gyges doesn’t want to, for to spy on the naked queen would mean, in his opinion, taking property from the King – for the queen’s eidos – her figure, is the King’s property in the same way that the King’s figure on a coin marks the coin as the King’s property. Of course, in the latter case, the property is alienated and circulates – but at no point in the circulation does the coin change its stamp.

Gyges, in the event, is hidden by the King in the Queen’s chamber, and spies upon her nakedness. However, as Gyges does this and contrives to slip out of the chamber, unbeknownst to him, the Queen spots him. The next day she calls Gyges into her presence and gives him a choice. Either she will have him killed for spying on her, or he will kill the King and rule with her over Lydia. In one way or another, she will have her honor – her aidos – avenged.

The invisibility in this story is all a matter of human invention. It is the invisibility of the person who is hidden. The story is neatly sewn together as the invisible and the visible positions change places. That the Queen’s beauty is invisible to any male gaze except the King’s (we discount, in this story, the Queen’s serving women) is the motive that sets the intrigue in motion, for her beauty is, in a sense, both undervisible and overvisible – it exists as a second visibility. The King’s love is constrained by the fact that this second visibility cannot circulate. Gyges, as the voyeur, is indeed put into a position where he, invisibly, takes possession of that second visibility – but immediately, his position is reversed by the fact that, unbeknownst to him, he is seen by the Queen when he leaves his spot. The voyeur is, in turn, spied upon. A trope we find, incidentally, in Sartre's Being and Nothingness. And finally, of course, the two come together in a plot to overthrow the King. Here, they become conspirators in a secret – a relative of the invisible and the hidden.

Plato’s tale is better known. It is told by Glaucon in The Republic. The personages and terms, here, are rearranged a bit. Gyges is not a noble in this story, but a shepherd. Then one day…

“After a great deluge of rain and an earthquake, the ground opened and a chasm appeared in the place where he was pasturing; and they say that he went down and wandered into the chasm; and the story goes that he beheld other marvels there and a hollow bronze horse with little doors, and that he peeped in and saw a corpse within, as it seemed, of more than mortal stature, and that there has nothing else (allo men ouden) but a gold ring on its hand, which he took off and went forth.”

This ring, it turns out, has the power to make its possessor invisible and then visible again. "Learning that the ring made him invisible, he immediately contrived to be one of the messengers of the king. When he arrived, he committed adultery with the king's wife and, along with her, set upon the king and killed him. And so he took over the rule".

The fable of Gyges is a limit case meant to throw light on the question of justice. If we have the power to escape the power of justice – the armed power of the state - by becoming invisible, would we continue to be just? Socrates argument is that the cause of behaving justly does not tell us the nature of justice – rather, justice is good in itself. “We have met all the.. . demands of the argument and we have not invoked the rewards and reputes of justice as you said [the poets] do, but we have proved that justice in itself is the best thing for the soul in
itself, and that the soul ought to do justice whether it possess the ring of Gyges or not, or the Helmet of Hades to boot".

Shell’s argument is that we must go back to the terms of the story – the antithesis of the visible and the invisible – to understand how it works textually in the Republic, in which the power of money is at work as an irritant. First, he cites early commentators on Herodotus’ story, which introduce the features that coalesce, later, in Gyges’s ring.

“That the queen could see Gyges in the bedroom indicates that she possessed not only a power to make things invisible but also a corresponding power (as invisible spy) to make visible to herself things that were invisible to other people. Ptolemaeus Chennus writes that the eyes of "the wife of [Clandaules. . . had double pupils, and she was extremely sharp sighted, being the possessor of the dragon-stone. This is how she came to see Gyges as he passed through the door.” The dragonstone has an opposite effect from the magic ring. In one case the talisman makes people invisible; in the other case, it makes people visible: taken together, their power makes things visible or invisible. This is the power of Platonic Gyges. It is also the power of the archetypal tyrant.”

Shell, going back to the notion that the King possesses a property in the appearance of the wife, alludes to the Greek distinction between two forms of transaction.

“ousia phanera is property whose transfer was seen by others, and ousia aphanB is property whose transfer was not seen. (In a visible transfer, the buyer and seller might exchange a symbolic deposit not as part of the purchase price but as a visible sign of their agreement.) The second meaning of the opposition involves money: ousia phanera is a nonmonetary commodity (such as land or "real" estate) andousia aphanēs is money (such as a coin).”

Which brings us to our second history.

2. An Athenian farmer, Chremylus, goes to Apollo’s temple at Delphi to ask advice from the God. Chremylus has been one of Socrates’ kind – he has done good all his life. But all around him, he has seen wealth go to the worst, the cunning, those who are incompetent in everything except plundering; more, he has seen honesty positively punished. Socrates, of course, extolled justice even if it put the just man in danger of losing his life. But this is to put the question on the level of the individual: how about a society in which the just man always loses? Is it just for a man to condemn his children to pain and poverty by teaching them to be just, thus reproducing the social conditions that make for injustice? Chremylus is too good not to be worried about how his son will make out if he follows his father’s path. Thus, he wants to know whether he should raise his son to be unjust, a criminal, and thus spare the boy the pain that the father has known.

The oracle gives him a typically oblique judgment – the first person he meets, returning to Athens, he is to talk to and take into his home.

The man he meets is blind. His clothes are ragged and dirty. Chremylus decides he wants to know the wretch’s story, and even threatens the blind man with his slave, Cario, if he won’t tell it.

“CARIO. If you don't speak, you wretch, I will surely do you an ill turn.
PLUTUS. Friends, take yourselves off and leave me.
CHREMYLUS. That we very certainly shan't.
CARIO. This, master, is the best thing to do. I'll undertake to secure him the most frightful death; I will lead him to the verge of a precipice and then leave him there, so that he'll break his neck when he pitches over.
CHREMYLUS. Well then, I leave him to you, and do the thing quickly.
PLUTUS. Oh, no! Have mercy!
CHREMYLUS. Will you speak then?
PLUTUS. But if you learn who I am, I know well that you will ill-use me and will not let me go again.
CHREMYLUS. I call the gods to witness that you have naught to fear if you will only speak.
PLUTUS. Well then, first unhand me.
CHREMYLUS. There! we set you free.
PLUTUS. Listen then, since I must reveal what I had intended to keep a secret. I am Plutus.”
Chremylus is, of course, skeptical of this story. Plutus is the god of wealth – the man before him looks like the product of the worst poverty. The images seem irreconcilable.
“CHREMYLUS. But tell me, whence come you to be so squalid?
PLUTUS. I have just left Patrocles' house, who has not had a bath since his birth.[740]
CHREMYLUS. But your infirmity; how did that happen? Tell me.
PLUTUS. Zeus inflicted it on me, because of his jealousy of mankind. When I was young, I threatened him that I would only go to the just, the wise, the men of ordered life; to prevent my distinguishing these, he struck me with blindness! so much does he envy the good!
CHREMYLUS. And yet, 'tis only the upright and just who honour him.
PLUTUS. Quite true.
CHREMYLUS. Therefore, if ever you recovered your sight, you would shun the wicked?
PLUTUS. Undoubtedly.
CHREMYLUS. You would visit the good?
PLUTUS. Assuredly. It is a very long time since I saw them.”
As A.M. Bowie has observed, Plutus’ story is paralleled by the story of Prometheus. Just as Prometheus, out of love for mankind, steals fire from the gods – and is punished for it by Zeus – so, too, the god of wealth, when he can see, intends to distribute money only to those who are upright – to, in effect, give money to the just.
Blindness is invisibility reversed – instead of the invisible being present to the seeing eye, the visible is made invisible by being present to the unseeing eye. But eye it still is. Aristophanes story – for this is the storyline of Aristophanes’ last play, Plutus – is a sort of variation on the Gyges story, substituting an immortal for a mortal and blindness – a sightless presence – for invisibility – a presence that can’t be seen. In the course of the play, Plutus’s sight is restored – and initiates a golden age of just deserts. What interests me is that, although Zeus’s treatment binds together the two mythical figures, it is Prometheus who survives, in the collective imagination, as the hero. The romantics, including Marx, were attracted to the Prometheus myth in that it countered Christian meekness and pulled away the veil from the violence of the established order. But the blessings of a seeing Plutus did not inspire the poets. Yet, the attempt to make Plutus see, the dream of the seeing god of wealth, has been the ardent pursuit, the mythic ideal, of liberal society – one that finally, in a dialectical movement, returns the utopian society of the end of Aristophanes play back to the blind god, now in John Rawls’ original position, distributing the goods in society properly, restrained not by Zeus, but by Pareto optimality.
3. And then – another transformation of Gyges story – there is the story of the killing of the Chinese Mandarin.
The story is told in Pére Goriot. Rastignac is tempted by Vautrin to plot for the destruction of the rich brother of Victorine. Victorine would inherit the family wealth if her brother died – an event that Vautrin seeks to arrange through a duel. As Victorine is in love with Rastignac, it would only remain for the latter to marry the former and enjoy her wealth. The day after Vautrin reveals this plan, Rastignac consults a friend, Bianchon:
"'I'm being tortured by evil thoughts,"' Rastignac says, adding: "Have you read Rousseau?" "Yes." "Do you remember that passage in which he asks the reader what he would do if he could become wealthy by killing an old Chi-nese mandarin, without leaving Paris, just by an act of will?" "Yes." "Well then?" "Oh, I'm on my thirty-third mandarin." "Don't joke about it. Come, if it were proved to you that the thing was possible and that all you'd need to do would be nod your head, would you do it?" "Is your mandarin very old? Oh, well, young or old, healthy or paralytic, good Lord ... Oh, the devil! Well, no."
I’m quoting the passage as it appears in Carlo Ginzburg’s essay, “Killing a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance”. This scene in Balzac is, of course, the seed for much that has followed in the novel - for instance, Raskolnikov’s problem in Crime and Punishment falls out along these lines, as Grossman has pointed out in his study of Doestoevsky. As I recall, Czeslaw Milosz devoted an essay to Rastignac’s problem – although I can’t find it now. But Ginzburg’s essay is exceptional in following the trace of the motifs that finally find their place in this mistaken reference to Rousseau. It is rather Diderot, as Ginzburg points out, who is Rastignac’s predecessor here. Diderot presents the problem of distance and conscience first in the Dialogue Between a Father and a Son, and later in Supplement to the Voyage of Bouganville. In the former, the story is told of a hatter who steals the inheritance of his dead wife from her family. The family had the legal right to it; the hatter, however, had taken care of his invalid wife for eighteen years. Finally, the hatter decides to flee with the money to Geneva. At this point, Diderot writes:
"We agreed," Diderot writes, "that perhaps distance in space or time weakened all feelings and all sorts of guilty conscience, even of crime. The assassin, removed to the shores of China, can no longer see the corpse which he left bleeding on the banks of the Seine. Remorse springs perhaps less from horror of oneself than from fear of others; less from shame at what one has done than from the blame and punishment it would bring if it were found out."
And so China, distance and murder come together. But the terms are reversed, of course, in Rastignac’s tale – which may well figure the reverse of the terms of adventure as eighteenth century colonialism, with its slavery and sugar, gives way to nineteenth century imperialism, with its markets and opium.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

note to homo oeconomicus 1

Mill, in his influential System of Logic, devoted Book six to the logic of the sciences of human nature, which he called ethology – the science of character. His first purpose in writing this chapter is to defend the notion that social sciences are exact sciences – that is, that they express laws, in the same way that the phenomena studied by astronomers or meteorologists express laws. His second point is that ethology is a deductive science – not an experimental one: “Are the laws of the formation of character susceptible of a satisfactory investigation by the methods of experimentation? Evidently not: because even if we suppose unlimited power of varying the experiment, (which is abstractedly possible, though no one but an oriental despot either has that power, or if he had, would be disposed to exercise it,) a still more essential condition is wanting; the power of performing any of the experiments with scientific accuracy.” (517)

This breathes the air of liberal doctrine. From Mill to Hayek, the idea that some central despotic power could or would ‘experiment’ with humans evokes the moral outrage that is the correlate of the liberal philosophy of markets. Markets, on the other hand, exert no despotism; markets, being free, free men from despotism.

In fact, Mill’s observation seems, from the point of view of the exact sciences, correct. And yet, from the point of view of the governance of men, it seems to miss the point. Almost any rule – whether derived from the management of a business enterprise or from a government agency – is in the manner of an experiment. It organizes human activity in a certain way. Looked at pragmatically, humans go from experiment to experiment – that is, from norm to norm.

And this brings us back to the question of the myth of homo oeconomicus. When I asked, parodying the title of Veyne’s work, if the moderns believe their myth, I am asking about how the myth affects the moderns. My hasty answer is that slowly, inexorably, a myth that was devised to explain society has become the myth to which society is being sacrificed. This is its ‘demonic’ power. In creating an economics that features, centrally, homo oeconomicus, the economists – in spite of their protest that homo oeconomicus is an ideal type, a fiction binding together the models of a science – embarked upon an experiment. But one must be careful here: for the power to design this experiment is surely not in the hands of the economists. Rather, the myth congeals into a recognizable figure central elements of the capitalist order, and in so doing reinforces them. It is as if an experiment were proposed by an occidental despot, in which the question explored is: can we devise a society in which homo oeconomicus is the norm?

In protesting that the rational economic agent is not meant to represent the typical human, with his ‘perturbatory’ human features, Walras was doubtless being sincere. But he was ignoring the unconscious, utopian side of his invention. When physicists devise their model of the atom, it is without a thought that the atom should take counsel from the physicists. But the same can’t be said for the economists.

To leap ahead: I don’t propose to become the biographer of homo oeconomicus because I delight in his hijinks. I propose to do so because I think the experiment is turning out badly.

Looking at global capitalism at the end of the Great Moderation, I am reminded of the end of the Soviet Union. In the eighties, with actually realized socialism in place, it was time for the New Soviet Man to emerge. As he did so, in the confident words of the regime’s ideologists, a satiric portrait of him – Homo Sovieticus – was promoted in dissident circles. But even Homo Sovieticus could not quite capture the forces that were steadily undermining the Soviet imperium. As the economy became more and more unreal, an empire of soft budget constraints – factories whose products were obsolete by the time they reached the end of the assembly line, workers who diverted the chemicals needed for their machines into beverages to be fermented and drunk on the line, etc – the New Soviet Man became more and more real.

A similar, unacknowledged process is taking place in the capitalist world, which is busy ignoring the signs of imminent environmental and moral collapse. As the experiment to make homo oeconomicus real effects the life histories of billions of people, the mixed exchange matrix that actually makes capitalism livable is being eroded. In the end, when the life of the fiction negates the life of the flesh, the fiction will die – but, if history is any guide, the death throes will make the life of the flesh miserable in some vast and catastrophic way.

Monday, November 15, 2010

homo oeconomicus 1

A mystery surrounds the birth of homo oeconomicus. His ‘hour of birth” is disputed. His parents are many – and they are all males. He has been traced back to Plato’s philosopher king – and more plausibly, to the all knowing fiction devised by Laplace to explain the explicability of the mechanistic universe: “An intelligence which in a given instant would know all the forces of which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings that compose it, if it were besides of a vast enough scale to submit these givens to analysis, would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies in the universe and those of the lightest atom: nothing would be uncertain for her, and the future, as the past, would be present to her eyes.”

Homo oeconomicus, of course, has not yet been elevated to a principle as universal as all that. But he is still a hero, and as such, a piece of the marvelous that no plebian copulation can explain. The hero’s birth, which is always a matter of cultic interest, divides us into initates and the uninitiated – and never more so than in the mysteries celebrated in the name of the rational maximizer. We understand the mysteries or we don’t. And the priests work to ensure that the mysteries become ever more mysterious and ensnaring as we enter the sacred places.

The phrase appears, all at once, in the 1890s in the works of several political economists. In an essay from 1891, Lasciate Fare, Lasciate Passare, Vilfredo Pareto writes: “now the science of economics tends to separate itself into two branches. In the first case, one departs from some postulates, in fact only one postulate, that of hedonism, and having assumed a homo oeconomicus whose actions are hedonistic in every, one establishes a workable basis of a deductive science that represents what would happen in a society composed of such men. In the other, one brings together like facts and tries to deduce laws from them, which cannot be non-empirical…” [cited by Michael McLure 2001, 41] Leon Walras in 1898 writes: “In fact, the man who has needs, who divides labor and who, in view of the maxima satisfaction of his needs sells his services and buys products in quantities such that his scarcities should be reciprocal to the virtually exchangeable quantities of goods and services, homo oeconomicus, is also he who is endowed with sympathy and an aesthetic sense, with understanding and reason, with a free and conscious ill, homo ethicus; and both are man living in society, cultivating art, making science, having manners and morals and practicing industry, in brief, homo coenonicus.” 1898 Irving Fisher, reviewing a book by the Italian economist, Matteo Pantaleone in 1898, asks: “Is it necessary, for instance, to predicate of “homo oeconomicus” perfect foresight and papal infallibility (pp. 87, 240)…”

In fact, even as homo oeconomicus steps into history, who and what he is, his properties, what he is for, the destiny that lies before him, the charge he must keep, all are subject to doubt and dispute. That he is a fiction is granted all the way around: but isn’t it true of all sciences that they operate by creating useable fictions? That is, generalizations or ideals, models or laws, that are not used to explain every physical occurrence, since occurrences happen in the friction of altering circumstance.

Walras, in 1875, corresponded with the French philosopher, Renouvier, about the justification for his conception of the economic actor - this, one should note, is before the homo oeconomicus was named, but not before the sages were dimly conceiving of him. Of his prehistory we will speak later.

Renouvier wrote that “psychological, social and other conditions are of a nature to introduce a separation between the previsions of mathematical economics and the determination of economic facts.” Walras responded, defending his Elements of Pure Political Economics: “It is exclusively a work of theory, in which I believed I was able to make an abstraction of ‘psychological, social and other conditions” of which you speak as accessory perturbations. [Cited by Donald Walker in Etudes Walrrassiennes, 2004]

This ability to put aside the perturbations of society and psychology, and to abstract the unit of pleasure – or utility – to a mathematical quantity that is, at one and the same thing, the object of some agent’s direst predilection and a mere variable for any pleasure whatsoever, is what characterizes the most heroic act of the homo oeconomicus. It is not so much that he is a calculator – it is that he is a substituter.