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Monday, May 23, 2011

Doormen of genius

The great wheel of circulation is altogether different from the goods which are circulated by means of it. The revenue of the society consists altogether in those goods, and not in the wheel which circulates them. – Adam Smith

How can we reconcile what Simmel says about the lengthening of the means – the lengthening of the instrumental interval – to ends in capitalism with our experience of what Marx pointed out again and again – that capitalism becomes a global second nature that conceals the system of production under the great wheel of circulation? For, starting from Marx’s perception, we notice that everything seems speeded up, and not slowed down, in capitalism. For Shylock and Bassanio, a bet on cargo would take months to come to some end – but for a Jerome Kerviel, hundreds of millions of dollars can be bet and lost or won on bundles of financial instruments in the course of a day merely by using a cursor. The sugar I put in my coffee today came Saint Louis, a company that refines and distributes sugar derived from beets cultivated in Europe, while the coffee came from Peru. Both were purchased at the Monoprix down the street. The logistical network by which both products could be refined, packaged, trucked to stores and finally end up consumed on my table is only intermittently visible to anyone – it is visible in the truck that unloads the packages and the store clerks who stock it – it is visible to the rural proles who harvest the beans, picturesquely dressed in colorful and characteristic clothing and smiling (according to the image on the package) (although in reality probably wearing tee shirts that say Harvard or Hard Rock Café or something similar and blue jeans, part of the vast dump of tee shirts throughout the undeveloped economies), and visible as digits displayed on a screen to accountants at the company and stock market traders. All of which means that as Simmel’s teleological series are lengthening, they are also producing the appearance of temporal shortening – they are faster. The faster they are, the more they are lengthened – this is one of the paradoxes of capitalism.

It is a paradox that, as well, impinges on the novelistic representation of the Great Transformation. Lukacs, in the Theory of the Novel, speaks a little mysteriously of the various regimes of “distance” between the hero and the meaning of life in the epic, the tragedy, and the novel. This distance is, I think, an expression of the teleological chains that Simmel saw on the surface of life in a fully monetized society. For the epic and the tragic hero, the quest is to understand the sense of life in the face of fate – the world here consists of large, or one might say, royal contingencies. But for the novelistic hero, fate doesn’t have the same totalizing meaning – it has, instead, a dispersing meaning.

“For life, gravity means: the absense of any present sense, the indissoluble enclosure in senseless causal connections, the withering in fruitless nearness to earth and farness from heaven, the having to endure in not being able to liberate oneself from the irons of simple brutal materiality from that which for the best immanent forces of life is the continual goal of overcoming: expressed with the value concept of form – triviality.”

Baudelaire said that Balzac’s novels are distinguished from the usual novel of moeurs by the fact that Balzac’s delight in the massive triviality of material circumstances transforms them into signs and symbols of genius: “All his personages are endowed with a vital ardor by which he is himself animated. All his fictions are as profoundly colored as dreams. From the summit of the aristocracy to the plebes at the bottom, all the actors of his Comedy are more eager for life, more active and clever in struggle, more angelic in devotion, than the comedy of the real world shows them to us. In brief, each, with Balzac, even the doormen, have genius.”

Baudelaire is a very surefooted critic. Wilde obviously copies Baudelaire here in his famous essay on the Decay of Lying, and Wilde was as cunning as a jewel thief when it came to copping the shiny bits of his predecessors. But though I am sure that Baudelaire is correct about the excess in Balzac, I am not sure that this excess did not flow back into life – or rather, I am not sure that Balzac was not simply being prophetic. Proust thought so – thought that the aristocracy absorbed Balzac’s aristocrats into the norms of their own behavior. The transmission, here, was obviously through a literacy and taste that one might not suppose in the doormen. But could it be… could it be that the burden of trivia itself imposed a struggle upon them such that the result, under the Great Transformation, in the midst of teleological chains that were both lengthening and shortening – in an Alice in Wonderland world – was that genius became a job requirement of the doormen of Paris, London or New York? In comparison to the Sganarelles and Figaros of the old order, at least.

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