In a letter to a friend that serves as the preface to Francois Laye’s French translation of Book of Disquiet, Pessoa writes that “life bothers me almost noiselessly, in little sips, by the interstices.”
Pessoa’s heteronym, Bernardo Soares, whose reflexions constitute the Book of Disquiet, is, like Pessoa, a clerk and a poet. I’ve already broached the juxtaposition of commerce and poetry in my previous post. The literature of the clerk is created in the interstices of the system of world trade. The Daoist element in modernism consists in looking, with a poet’s consciousness, upon the clerk’s routine.
‘I know very well that the day when I am named the chief accountant of the firm Vasques and Company will be one of the great days of my existence. I know it with a bitter and ironic anticipation, but also with that intellectual advantage of a certitude.”
In contrast to this note of the deepest resignation – the resignation of Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, whose life is consciously devoted to an all embracing lack of faith – there is the note entitled Absurd Axioms, which begins:
To become the sphinx, even the fake sphinx, to the point of no longer knowing who we are. For, in fact, we are nothing other than the fake sphinx, and we really are ignorant of who we are. The only way to find ourselves in accord with life is to be in disaccord with ourselves. Absurdity is the divine.
To found theories by a patient and honest reflection for the sole purpose of combating them afterwards - to act and justify our actions by theories which condemn them – to trace a path in our lives for acting, consequently, in the inverse direction of the path. To effectuate all the acts, to assume all the attitudes of something that we are not, that we do not claim to be, and that we, further, don’t wish others to imagine that we are.”
This is the credo of the circulation worker on the brink of the alienation that defines his place in the system. I am indifferent to whether the circulation worker is working in the post office for the government or the marketing department for a software manufacturer. These axioms are taken from one form of the real, which was discovered by Gogol (in the sense that Columbus discovered America – Gogol simply bumped into the already-there) as the eternal banal.
Literary reflexions that I want to put in relation with another genre of discourse – that of economic rationality.
I have misused the notion of the exchange matrix as proposed by Robert Clower in a famous 1967 paper about the efficiency of money as a mediator of exchange. There is an excellent discussion of this in Philip Mirowski’s The Reconstruction of economic theory. Clower’s images still adhere to the grand principle of neo-classical economics, which is that it is prices all the way down – the seismograph takes over the earthquake machine, and we assume equilibrium where there is none because otherwise, we don’t have a theory. The assumption of neo-classical economics cleans the ‘price’ of its dialectical character – not accidentally. Instead, all are given ‘endowments’ exogenously, and enter into the system – there is no room here for Pessoa’s realization that his life is caught in the interstices.
Still, the form of the exchange matrix is excellent. I view it as a kind of spread sheet – indeed, it is a spread sheet. It is one we all carry with us. The values by which we calculate change according to the frame we are operating in. And here, borrowing from Bataille, I would say that the economist’s view of rationality is really ‘limited’ rationality – the rationality that applies to a certain common form of the spread sheet, which applies to one level of social practices, in which the capitalist element is strongest. However, limited rationality does not define all rationality. The mistake economists make when, in dismay, they confront the discoveries of behavior psychologists - that, for instance, preferences aren’t transitive or invariant, and that rational choice makes a highly select use of real individual behavior – is to think they are witnessing ‘irrationality’. What they are witnessing is the rationality that comes with changing the options of the spread sheet – for instance, the preference tool. This is possible because the spead sheet consists of affordances. Rationality is defined in terms of the options that are checked – and in this sense, that is, in the sense that there are an indeterminate number of matrixes of exchange, we are dealing with ‘general rationality.’