“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 29, 2011

a more personal beginning

I've been worrying that the style in which I'm trying to write my Bio of H.E. is too scholastic, and not gnostic or eccentric or personal enough. So I am thinking of beginnning something more like this.


I was in my second year of college, in the town of S., a long time ago, hen I first came down with what I know now is a sort of disease: the want of a desire to want. I was living in a furnished apartment above a garage full of old photographs. The garage was attached to a mansion inhabited by an eccentric and presumably wealthy couple, although I only had any relations with the wife, Mrs. M., a former CIA agent and photograph enthusiast (hence, the piles of old darkroom equipment and boxes of photographs in the garage, along with a very old and never driven Bentley

I was happy with the furnishings, and especially with Mrs. M.’s choice of firehouse red as the predominant color in the kitchen (stove, table, chairs, and even tea kettle). Then my father came by one day – they lived twenty miles outside of S. – and gave me a television.

Up until this point, I’d had no trouble with television. One of my first purchases, from my first job as a teenager, had been a small portable tv. This allowed me to watch tv in my bedroom, my own shows rather than those of my parents or brothers and sisters when they had dibs on the big tv in the downstairs room which was all set up for it – the couch and the chairs turned towards it even when they were empty and the set was off, as if the room was somehow asleep. But as I tried to find a place for the tv my father gave me, I suddenly felt that I didn’t really want it.

Up until that point, it hadn’t occurred to me not to want the wantable things that America is so full of. Looking back, this rather trivial moment was like the first symptom, the first black buboe that signifies that you have the plague. Because, as my life unfolded, I discovered I didn’t want almost any of the major wantable things. I didn’t want a car. I didn’t want a home. I didn’t want a boat, or a stereo system, or a credit card, or a closet full of clothes. I didn’t even want a couch. It wasn’t even that I was infected with a hippie Puritanism that meant that I wanted other people not to want these things; it was simply that I never, well, felt the urge to go out and buy them.

The significance of the PC and the Internet for me was that, in the nineties, I finally wanted something. But I didn’t want the latest things, even there: I was quite content with, say, Windows95 long after that software had been rendered obsolete. I only gradually and grudgingly have been pulled along by the trendy currents of personal computing design. Plus, my job, as a free lancer, depends on the computer.

I would not have a problem with the want of wanting if I didn’t have pretensions far above my station – for even when I was perched in my firehouse red kitchen in the town of S., I planned on being a writer. I planned on writing novels, in fact. I didn’t plan on poor thin narratives, but thick ones, fat cultural steaks full of the greases and hamburger of the America I saw around me, all its idiocies and splendeurs in my – and its - ephemeral moment. The most fabulously wealthy country of all time! My idea of the novel was on the lines of those of Balzac, whose Human Comedy – if considered as one novel, on the order of, say, In Search of Lost Time – is at the top of my list of great novels. Balzac not only wrote of people wanting lots in the restoration France of his time, but he himself was a tremendous and unmanageable wanter, which is how he went through fortunes as a sort of industrial plant of best sellers and still managed, most years, to remain well in debt. He wanted houses, he wanted art, he wanted excellent food and wine, he wanted women, he wanted clothes. In the letters to his future wife, Madame Hanska, who was as beautiful as a portrait and, more to the point, beautifully wealthy, plus being geographically distant on her Ukranian estates – where she couldn’t poke her nose too much into Balzac’s Parisian business - Balzac would heap up in great lists the things he wanted – the houses that they would both live in, jewels, objects of art - in a sort of fireworks of mad accounting and mad connoisseurship, while at the same time he would keep her advised of his schemes for liquidating his debts, which by 1844 amounted to, on his account, about 150,000 francs.

“I went out for the first time the day before yesterday. I bought a clock for our salon of an unheard of magnificence, and two pale blue garnet vases that are not less magnificent. All this for almost nothing. Great news! Rothschild wants my Florentine marbles. He is doubtless going to come to see them. I want fourteen thousand francs for them. Another piece of news! The Girardon Christ, bought for one hundred fifty francs, is estimated at five thousand francs, and twenty thousand francs with the frame [by Bustolone]. And you scold me, o louloup, for my dealings in the kingdom of Bricabrac-erie!” [ - my translation Lettres a l’etrangere, vol. 2, 446]

Balzac abundantly satisfied his love of bricabrac-erie in his novels, in which characters are always setting up apartments or houses with lavishly described furnishings – and it finally achieves its metaphysical form in Cousin Pons. Balzac’s reveling in such things as frames by Bustolone or boudoir figurines turned out by 18th century craftsmen had, as he well knew, a political sense: Balzac not only turned his negative capacity into a shopping catalogue, but he had a very high sense of the history behind the object and a genius for understanding how they were all connected. In the period of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the storehouse of goods that had been accumulated for centuries in noble estates and monarchial palaces, in churches and bourgeois hôtels, were swept away in the deluge (the deluge to which Louis XV had so famously referred), to reappear in the pawn shop, the cart of the dealer in curios at the foire, among dealers in old furniture located in shadowy side streets, or mysteriously present on the fireplace mantel of the provincial peasant who had enriched himself buying seized church lands.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

diderot - nature and folly

In a letter to Sophie Volland on September 2, 1769, Diderot wrote:

I believe that I told you that I made a dialogue between D’Alembert and me. In re-reading it, I was taken with the fantasy of making a second and it was made. The interlocutors are D’Alembert who dreams, Bordeu and the friend of D’Alember, Mlle de l’Epinasse. It is entitled the Dream of D’Alembert. It isn’t possible to be more profound and more crazy [plus profound et plus fou]. [Diderot, OC 1875, II, 101. My translation.]

In the 18th century, depth and folly were normally dissociated. Yet Diderot, who viewed himself as, above all, a combatant on the philosophe side, saw them as allies. In the letter to Sophie Volland we quoted about the two Enlightenments, Diderot had already contemplated the idea that the world was a ‘stupidity’ – a ‘beautiful stupidity’. If this were so, then a problem, or rather a cognitive abyss, opens up before reason, and the rational man, going through that door, falls into it. The pit is this world.

Another name for the world is ‘nature’. In the seventeenth century, Boyle had already made the first foray against using the term nature vulgarly as a cause. I’ve already written a post about this, so let me quote it here:

“In 1686, Robert Boyle published the “Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Receiv’d Notion of Nature”. Michael Hunter and Edward Davis make the claim that this is one of the essential texts of the Scientific Revolution. In their essay on the making of the text, Hunter and Davis quote one of Boyle’s “protégés”, Scottish physician David Abercromby, who wrote: I therefore look upon this work as the new system of a new philosophy which fundamentally overthrows the foundation – namely, Nature – of all views hitherto held in philosophical matters.” [219] Others, of course, have cast doubt on the very idea that there was a Scientific Revolution. Myself, I prefer the term New Learning. Certainly there was an institutional revolution – no longer were the virtuosi independent players, like wandering minstrels and alchemists. The Universities were still stacked with Aristotelians and bloodletters, and the real action shifted to the Royal Society, or the semi Royal academies in France (although in France, this was supplemented by a correspondence culture which formally associated savants which doesn’t have a parallel in England).

We can go all the way back to the Cratylus to find distinctions being made between speakers of the same language. Among the humanists, the distinction between learned speech and vulgar speech was simply a reality – learning was published in Latin – or it referred to an occult jargon that supposedly could be attributed to traditions that went back to antiquity. Antiquity was the truthmaker, to use a fashionable term from contemporary analytic philosophy. But as the New Learning was about casting off the shackles of antique learning, this distinction would no longer do (although, of course, I am working with clear cut lines that were, in actuality, less clear cut than one could tell from the bravado of New Learning’s sages. Respect for the ancients was not so easily overcome as all that).

So when Boyle writes his enquiry, we are faced with a new set of coordinates for separating ordinary speech from “philosophical” speech. Since Boyle was, on his odd days, a corpuscularian, and a round promoter of the Royal society, one might think that he had a sneaking affection for Gassendi’s re-discovery of atomism. In fact, it is the use of ‘nature’ in the Epicurean sense – the vulgar chatter of the esprits forts – against which Boyle shoots many of his arrows.”

The arrow is tipped, feathered and shot from the first paragraphs of Boyle’s work:

“But farther whilst men indulge themselves so general and easy a way of solving difficulties as to attribute them to nature; shame will not reduce them to a more industrious search after the reasons of things, nor curiosity itself greatly move them to it. Thus the cause of the ascent of water in pumps and other phenomena of that kind had never been known if the moderns had acquiesced in that imaginary one that the world was gover’d by a watchful Being call’d nature, who abhors a Vacuum and consequently is always ready to do whatever is necessary to prevent it.”

But though Boyle and his colleagues of the Royal Society drove nature out of the language of natural philosophy, Nature, as is the way of all obsolete gods, made his way back to the surface of consciousness as a sort of daemonic instance, a guilty last resort.

And so it is that Diderot’s three dialogues with D’Alembert procede with a demonic glee to reveal profound things. It was the glee, the tone, as well as the indiscretion, that angered D’Alembert’s mistress, Mlle de L’Epinasse, who demanded the suppression of the dialogue.

“It is the highest extravagance, and at the same time the deepest philosophy. There is some cunning [addresse] in having put my ideas in the mouth of a man who dreams – it is often necessary to give to wisdom the air of folly, in order to procure for it its entries, that I would rather that they says, “but this isn’t as crazy as everyone believes, rather then, “listen to me, here are some very wise things.”

As is so often the case with Diderot, the work is caught up in a network of sacrifice – of smoke. I wish Derrida had referred to these these dialogues in his Given Time, where the question of the commodity of tobacco – that exemplary gift/gift – is intermixed with the question of smoke and dispersion, of non-return. Diderot claimed, and perhaps thought, that he had acceded to D’Alembert’s protest (driven by de L’Epinasse) and burnt them.

“The pleasure to have rendered an account to oneself for one’s opinions have produced them; the indiscretion of some persons had pulled them from obscurity; alarmed love desired their sacrifice; tyrannic friendship demanded it; and a too easy friendship consented: they were lacerated. You wanted me to gather up the fragments; I did so.”

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

the tableau method and historical consciousness

I’m not sure I want to explore this in my homo economicus book. But it fascinates me.

In Schumpeter’s history of economic analysis, he devotes a section to the excellencies of the tableau as a tool.

1. “First of all, the tableau method achieves a tremendous simplification. Actually the economic life of a nonsocialist society consists of millions of relations or flows between individual firms and households. We can establish certain theorems about them, but we can never observe all of them. But if we replace them by relations between classes or by flows of class (or other) aggregates, the unmanageable number of variables in the economic problem suddenly reduces to a few which are easy to handle and follow up.”
2. “Second, the simplification of the analytic pattern achieved by the tableau method opens up great possibilities for numerical theory. Quesnay was more alive to these possibilities than had been Cantillon and, in this particular respect, he carried the latter's work much further. He troubled himself about statistical data and actually tried to estimate the values of annual output and other aggregates.”
3. “Third and most important, the Cantillon-Quesnay tableau was the first method ever devised in order to convey an explicit conception of the nature of economic equilibrium… Now Cantillon and Quesnay had this conception of the general interdependence of all sectors and all elements of the economic process in which—so Dupont actually put it—nothing stands alone and all things hang together. And their distinctive merit—shared, to some extent, by Boisguillebert—was that, without realizing the possibilities of the method later on adumbrated by Isnard, they made that conception explicit in a way of their own, namely, by the tableau method: while the idea of representing the pure logic of the economic process by a system of simultaneous equations was quite outside their range of vision, they represented it by a picture. In a sense, this method was primitive and lacking in rigor—which is, in fact, why it fell out of the running and why analysis historically developed on the other line. But in one respect it was superior to the logically more satisfactory method; it visualized the (stationary) economic process as a circuit flow that in each period returns upon itself. This is not only a method of conveying the fact that the economic process is logically self-contained, a distinct thing that is complete in itself, but it is also a method of conveying features of it—definite sequences in particular—that do not stand out equally well in a system of simultaneous equations.”

Indeed, on Schumpeter’s account, class consciousness finds its privileged tool in the tableau method.

The opening up of a whole new textual space might have come about – I’d speculate furiously - from two separate lines of descent. The first line, as one might expect, is double entry book-keeping. The second line is more complex, and slithers through the visual arts. Kosseleck, in the first chapter of Future’s Past, uses a historical painting by Albrecht Altdorfer, Alexanderschlacht, as an iconic correlate to his thesis concerning the construction of historical time in different epochs. Altdorfer’s 1528 painting depicts the Battle of Issus – in which Alexander defeated the Persians. As is well known in philosophy, the battle is a model event – the stoics used it as such, the Bhagavad-gita uses it as such, novelists (Stendhal, Tolstoy) depict the confusing there-ness and non-there-ness of the battle, Deleuze remarks upon it in Logique du Sens – and Altdorfer is no different.

“Careful examination of the painting enables us to reconstruct the entire course of the battle. For Altdorfer had in this image delineated a history, in the way that Historie at that time could mean both image and narrative (Geschichte). To be as accurate as possible, the artist, or rather the court historiographer
advising him, had consulted Curtius Rufus so as to ascertain the (supposedly) exact number of combatants, the dead and those taken prisoner. These figures can be found inscribed upon the banners of the relevant
armies, including the number of dead, who remain in the painting among the living, perhaps even bearing the banner under which they are about to fall, mortally wounded. Altdorfer made conscious use of anachronism so that he could faithfully represent the course of the completed battle.”

Altdorfer’s ability to “portray” the diachronic axis – not the battle at some one instant, but the battle as a continuous event across its entire temporal length – is due to the synthesis of a late medieval representational style – which would temporalize the pictorial space according to some rule that would, for instance, put foreground figures in an earlier ‘moment’ than background figures – and the rules of perspective. The tableau is, in a sense, the heir of this synthesis. Marx made the tableau method dialectical in the same way that the perspectivally supplied artist was able to unfold an event in terms of a panorama. I wonder if the tableau is not the tool hidden behind Hegel’s Phenomenology and the Logic. Rather than the panorama of a battle scene that enfolds the entire event in a fictitious there-ness, the tableau allowed the physiocrats to enfold the entire economy in a fictitious thereness that, as Schumpeter saw, bears a name – a name we could inscribe on a banner: equilibrium. That impossible moment of the event in the event.