“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 08, 2011

on translating the preface to Daybreak

All of the English translations of the preface to Daybreak begin with a simple decision that concerns the first sentence, “In diesem Buche findet man einen "Unterirdischen" an der Arbeit, einen Bohrenden, Grabenden, Untergrabenden.” This has been translated by Hollingdale as: In this book you will discover a 'subterranean man' at work, one who tunnels and mines and undermines.” The simple decision here is to add “man” to Unterirdischen. This is a standard practice in translating from German to English, as the former language nominalizes certain adjectives that the latter language wants to return to the modifier/modified form. And yet here one feels that something has been slightly lost. For in the course of this paragraph, it is not at all clear that the Unterirdische starts out as a man, although he, or it, is definitely subterranean. It is impossible, really, not to show one’s hand in translating this sentence, if you translate Unterirdischen as the Subterranean, you must still decide about Bohrenden, et. all.
My translation of the paragraph is much less smooth than Hollingdale’s, but this is what it would look like if we retain the ambiguity of whether the Subterranean is a human or not: In this book one will find a “subterranean” at work, boring, burrowing and sapping. One looks at it – that is, if one has the eyes to see such work of the deeps, as it slowly, thoughtfully, with soft inexorability, comes forward, without revealing too much of the pain entailed by every long renunciation of light and air. It could even be called satisfied with its dark work. Doesn’t it seem like some belief leads it on, some comfort consoles it? For it will perhaps have its own long darkness, its incomprehensibility, its hiddenness, its riddlesomeness, because it knows, what it will also have: its own morning, its own salvation, its own daybreak? .. Certainly, it is turned around: don’t ask it what it wants under there, it will tell you itself, this seeming Trophonious and subterranean, when he becomes ‘a human’ again. One forgets the fundamental rules of silence, when one has so long, like it, been a mole, been alone…”

My idea, in translating this, is that Nietzsche wants, here, to suspend the moment in which the figure we are viewing “becomes a human again’. In that state of suspension between the human and the it, the human and the mole, the human and the spirit of the dead, the full force of the way this subterranean is defined – in terms of a burrowing and boring that exhibits, in that wonderful and rather disgusting phrase, ‘soft inexorability’- helps us understand that this underground will not be of the same kind as Dostoevsky’s. Where Dostoevsky counters the crystal palace with the sewer, Nietzsche counters the human city with the sub or super-human burrow.

We know, however, that the superhuman for Nietzsche is not a matter of burrows. Bataille, in his essay on ‘The old mole and the sur in surrealism”, justly calls Nietzsche an icarian. For some reason the mole in Bataille’s essay is connected to Marx and Hegel, but not to Nietzsche – Bataille ignores this preface, and presents Nietzsche under the aegis of Zarathustra’s creature, the eagle, rather than Hegel’s mole.

“In point of view of appearances and splendor, the eagle is evidently more virile. Not only does the eagle rise into the radiant regions of the solar heaven, but it is situated in permanence with a dominant prestige. The absolutely sovereign character of this virility is implied by the hooked and cutting beak, because sovereign virility cuts everything that enters intoi competition with it, and cannot be cut.


“However, reduced to the subterranean action of the revolution’s economic facts, the ‘old mole’ digs out tunnels in a soil that is decomposed and repugnant to the delicate nose of utopists.” (OC II 96)

Already, in this essay, Bataille has learned to manipulate concept-images from Nietzsche. These images are not exactly metaphors or similes, for the analogies they set up they are also part of – after all, the analogy to height and depth is not just an analogy to abstract concepts, but concepts that have been abstracted from physical height and depth, in which physical eagles fly and physical moles crawl. Like the hexagrams of the I ching, or like dream images in Freud’s theory, they cannot be easily purged of their lateral, connotative addenda, nor abstracted to a conceptual schema – since they put into question the process of abstraction, the fine, shedding arc from impression to idea.

While the underground of the mole or the dead spirit is, I have maintained, different from the underground of the Dostoevskian deviant, it is of course related to it. But it is also related to a more primitive moment in the modernizing process, one that is older than capitalism: the social remove from nature.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Chiders and the Chidden

The Western world embarked on an experiment about thirty years ago, during the era of Reagan and Thatcher. After eighty years of a movement to mitigate the excesses of nineteenth century capitalism by putting in place a Guarantor state – which Karl Polanyi called the second movement in the history of capitalism, the first one being the installation of an industrial system linked to a market driven economy – the third movement began. The third movement consisted, frankly, of a politics that, while keeping in place the Guarantor system, deregulated industries – notably, the financial services industry – and lowered taxes for the wealthy in an effort to, as it were synthesize the Gilded Age with the Great Society.

Although privatisation and the crushing of labor movements were the surface phenomena of this third movement, it did not simply reprise the nineteenth century. Far from it. For one thing, the social movements of the sixties were transfigured, not erased, by churning ever more people – notably, women – into the labor market. This represented an advance in one way - the unpaid labor performed by women was translated into paid labor int he public sphere. On the strength of this new revenue stream, wealth accumulation and day to day living expenses were also transformed by being strongly attached to the credit market, which, in turn, being deregulated, found more and more creative ways to charge for debt and trade debt. The war state apparatus, which had been a prime driver of the social welfare programs of the 1900-1980 period, were sustained.

And gradually the orientation of the political elite was also altered. In 1980, that elite still legitimized itself by adverting to the well being of the majority of the population in some way. The old images of the past eighty years had still not lost their cultic force.

But over the years, as changes were wrought on the fabric of national economies, this reflex adherence to the principle of the well being of the majority sickened and died.

Among the political elite, for the most part, this sickness unto death dare not speak its name. But the latent conventional wisdom of the 2010s is that the economy exists not for the well being of the majority, but rather for the well being of the small majority of those who have benefited most over the last thirty years.

And it is this way that political issues are now ‘manufactured’ in the media and among the chattering class in D.C., London, Paris and Berlin. Behind the issue of the deficit looms the idea that we must not hurt the ‘savers” – that is, the small minority who have hoarded immense fortunes. Of course, when the question was one of loaning nine trillion dollars at rates close to zero percent to the representatives of the wealthy – banks, hedgefunders, mutual funds, etc. – the question wasn’t even posed. There was no headline about the politics of this form of redistributing wealth upwards in a slump. There was no discussion of it. There was complete agreement that it should be done. The release of documents from the Fed naming names and outlining the mechanism of this fantastically generous welfare program never took up the newspaper space devoted to Charlie Sheen.

How does the conventional wisdom become conventional? Of course, ultimately the ruling class, as Marx has written, exercises dominance over the discourse – but in a sense this is just saying that the ruling class rules. It is the mechanisms of dominance that are interesting.

Thus, I was fascinated by this bit in a post on Matt Yglesias’s blog. MY is a well known ‘progressive’ blogger who is extraordinarily good at absorbing conventional wisdom and extruding it as though it were contrarian. He adheres to the neo-liberal line of the last thirty years, garnished with Obama-esque policy nudges.
This was the beginning of one of his posts yesterday
: “I met Brookings’ Isabel Sawhill one time at a conference and she chided me for being insufficiently interested in cutting Social Security and Medicare spending. So I thought she might be into Paul Ryan’s budget ideas, at least perhaps in a Jacob Weisberg contrarian kind of way.”

The “chided” is the part in this that fascinates. To chide implies a certain responsibility one is not living up to. That responsibility is not to the well being of the majority, but instead, to actually doubting that diminishing their lifestyles is a policy we should embrace. It is notable that the chiding isn’t that MY is insufficiently interested in cutting down the average household spending on medicine, or insufficiently interested in making sure that the wealth of the wealthiest country in the world is used to make retirement pleasant and easy.

If one is still caught up in the past, or even in the compromises of the past thirty years, Sawhill’s morality seems upside down. Surely the one thing the Clinton years taught is that deficits are pretty easy to handle if one raises taxes that are paid by the wealthiest – from the capital gains tax to marginal tax rates on those making above 250,000 per year. In fact, it would be quite easy to break out new tax categories that would not weld together the millionaire and the upper middle class in the category, 250000 to infinity. There has never been a problem so simple. But the key here is that the solution is the problem. Because the solution is to discomfort the minority, the wealthiest top ten percent, by taking away from them money that has an extremely low marginal utility for them. Edgeworth, a radical free marketer rather than a Marxist, showed, over a century ago, that the entire running of the state could easily be achieved by taxing the wealthy at a rate proportionate to the lower marginal utility of their fortunes. If, in the same state, there is a family making 50 thousand per year and a family making 50 million per year, true confiscatory taxes would consist of taxing the former family at a minimal rate – five percent – when the same revenue could be painlessly extracted from the later family, who would, in every sense of the word, remain rich before and after taxes.

With the rise of universal education and the technostructure of the contemporary economy, there is, in truth, less need for the wealthy than ever before. This was demonstrated by the collapse of the credit markets, which was entirely due to the rentseeking system by which the wealthy used their fortunes – not in order to gain marginal utility in their persons, but purely in order to gain power.

But this is not a chideable issue. The political elites have benefited enormously from the economic changes of the past thirty years, and, by their lifestyle and their nudges, are committed to the proposition that the state and the economy exists to benefit the top 10 percent. It is in that light that all law and all issues should be tailored. The republican representative who recently opined that the Banking committee in the House of Representatives was there to serve the banks told a particular truth that has a general application: this is the ruling class. Only by holding this truth firmly in one’s mind can we understand the Democratic Party’s “weakness”, or the ‘bi-partisanship” of Obama, or the “Big Society” of Osborne and Cameron, or the odd emotional phenomenon of the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Clegg, who feels evidently that the electorate should understand that the rhetoric of the election has nothing to do with the real issue at hand, to wit, how to run a nation so as to produce maximum benefit for its richest citizens. To think otherwise is to fall on the side of the chidden.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

the killers and the non-killers: the animal underground


“Let’s remember the implicit code: in the abattoir, everybody does not kill, and this brings it about that there are a set of categorial disjunctions and tacit spatial ones. This code distinguishes the first two groups, the “killers” and the “non-killers” (the administrative personnel and the cleaners), and, at the heart of the group of killers, three sub-groups: the “true killers”, the “occasional killers”, and the “non-killers”. This is divided into different norms or implicit rules: the killers and the non-killers have each their own space; they enter the building by different doors; they never mix in the course of morning breaks; there can be mixed spaces, but the dirty section is forbidden to non-killers: the non-killers are not supposed to look at the slaughter; the killers are not supposed to penetrate into the working areaof the non-killers, etc.”
- From Catherine Remy, When the Implicit Norm is the motor of Normal Activity: deviance and social reactions in an abattoir

Catherine Remy’s article, taken from her fieldwork in a slaughterhouse, is explicitly a study of deviance, taken not in the sense of criminal action, but of non-normal action within a ‘occulted’ space: the slaughterhouse. The slaughterhouse is a sort of condensed sign, a dream image of the two removes that structure modernization: the remove from nature, and the remove from production.

We have had enough, for the moment, of our first underground, the one inhabited by Dostoevsky’s underground man, who in himself incorporates that ‘broadness’ Dostoevsky took to be the special Russian trait, the trait of the unformed that repulsed Europeans. Wave after wave of degenerates and deviants flow from his underground, existing, the sociologists and cops assure us, in parallel to respectable society and not within it – although the deviants and degenerates, along with Dostoevsky himself, would disagree. In a passage in his notebooks for The Raw Youth, from which I have already quoted, Dostoevsky wrote:

All the cries of the critics to the effect that I do not depict real life have not disenchanted me. There are no bases to our society … One colossal quake and the whole lot will come to an end, collapse and be negated as though it had never existed. And this is not just outwardly true, in the West, but inwardly, morally so. Our talented writers, people like Tolstoy and Goncharov, who with great artistry depict family life in upper-middle-class circles, think that they are depicting the life of the majority. In my view they have depicted only the life of the exceptions, but the life which I portray is the life that is the general rule. I pride myself that I've been the first to portray the real man of the Russian majority, and have for the first time revealed his distorted and tragic side. I alone brought out the tragedy of the underground which consists of suffering and self-immolation, of the awareness of that which is better and of the inability to attain it… The underground, the underground, the poet of the underground — the feuilletonists have repeated this refrain as though it were something I should be ashamed of. The little fools. It is my glory…”


The second underground is inhabited by an animal it, which identifies that underground not with the sewer, ultimately, but with the tunnel, or the burrow. It identifies it with an activity – burrowing. Burrowing is a frantic activity, or a stealthy one. And it puts the burrowing creature in relation to light, sunlight.

Such is the structure of the symbols I want to follow in Nietzsche’s preface to Dawn, one of the great texts of the second sort of underground.

In order to follow the social logic – the collective dream logic - of the animal underground, a note here on one of the way nature was ‘removed’ under the auspices of modernization. I have given a mini-history of the removal of the slaughter house and animal cruelty in a previous couple of posts, and so for the rest of this post, I will splice them together and copy them.

“Remember, Cridle, those oxen,
blonde giants, dumb, looking upwards to heaven
whilst receiving the lash: it seemed to me
like I was feeling it too – Oh, Cridle, our business is bloody.”

Such are the words of meat goods king, Pierpont Mauler, in Brecht’s 1930 play, St. Johanna of the Stockyards. Meanwhile, in Lyons, the mayor was welcoming a new invention in the municipality abattoir: a “pistolet de l’assomage”. The inventors of this instrument, Jean Duchenet and Karl Schermer, wrote a summary of the benefits of it for the patent office: “The present invention has for its object a system of using a downing pistol (pistolet d’abatage) of which the automatic function and enhanced security renders the usage very practical and completely inoffensive. The manipulation of this tool is completely harmless. Its maneuvering capability is easy, rapid, and its automatic functioning is protected from all accidental deterioriation. With this machine, the slaughter of animals becomes instantaneous. It gains precious time for the butcher, who can proceed immediately, conveniently, and without danger, to stripping the animals.”

Catherine Remy, from whose article I am quoting, explains: if one pushes the idea a little, it is the idea of a combat, or at least of a dangerousness of the animal, that is here evoked and is at the same time combated. … Eduard Herriot, the mayor of Lyons, went and was the first to introduce the pistol, all in underlining explicitly its humanitarian character. For example, in response to a letter sent by one of his co-mayors, E. Herriot qualified the pistol as the “least barbarous means of slaughter.” (60)

If Kant saw the collapse of the human limit, his response was certainly not to rethink the animal. In fact, the animal is – because it is without self consciousness – always and universally a means for Kant. A means for the one who holds the place delimited by the rational existence: the person.

Kant probably did not go down to see the livestock brought into the old slaugherhouse on the Pregel in Konigsberg. It was a very old site. Konigsberg had a lively butcher’s guild. They used to parade gigantic sausages on New Years day. In 1601, they carried a sausage that was almost 1000 ells long and weighed almost 900 pounds, according to Johann Hübner (1762).

But because there was a municpal abattoir, it wasn’t necessarily up to date. The ones in Berlin were notoriously noxious, polluting, and filthy. The floorboards rotted with the perpetual rain of blood from the slaughtered beasts, and sometimes the butcher, arm upraised and ready to strike, would be as surprised as the beef cow when the floor boards gave way, tumbling them both into the stifling darkness below the slaughterhouse. Who knows what was down there. In 1810, the city closed them, so that once again, butchers would slaughter animals on the street. On that same date, however, Napoleon famously ordered an abattoir reform, setting municipal slaughterhouses out in the suburbs, and hiding the killing and stripping of the beasts.
This was a much admired move. In London, beasts were run up Oxford street to the Smithfield Market until 1850. Britain was the home of the first organized anti-cruelty effort, but Londoners could see, every day, how the cattle and sheep and pigs were run. They had to be beaten into making their pilgrimage. However, with trains and with cooling equipment, things started to change. In Dresden, by the 1890s, the municipal slaughterhouse was so clean and sweet that tours were made of it, and the tourist could, after seeing sausages being made, take refreshment in a garden restaurant. Apparently, none of the smells carried. Of course, these slaughterhouses became famous for another reason in 1945, when Kurt Vonnegut and a bunch of POWs sheltered in one from the U.S. bombing attack.

The beast and the rational being, then, were much more shoulder to shoulder in 1781, when the Critique of Practical Reason was written, then they were even fifty years later. As the meat market grew, the meat making disappeared.

In 1800, a bill was proposed in the House of Commons to ban bull-baiting. In bull-baiting, a bull was tied to a stake and dogs, often bull dogs, were set upon it. Sometimes, the dogs succeeded in killing the bull, sometimes the bull succeeded in killing the dogs, and most often, the bull and the dogs came off wounded.

The bill was defeated. Even so, it produced enough of a stir that a French academy asked a prize question about whether animals had a right to not being treated barbarously.

Another animal cruelty bill was introduced in the Parliament seven years later by Erksine, the well known defender of Tom Paine. It too was defeated.

Both defeats were mainly due to the eloquence of William Windham. Windham was one of Burke’s Whigs. He served as a minister in Pitt’s war government. He was, evidently, out of sympathy with the French Revolution. Yet the speech he made against banning bull-baiting is a document that defends the pleasures of the rural poor in explicitly class conscious terms; in almost the same terms, Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son in law, denounced the anti-vivisection movement in Britain in the 1890s.

Windham begins by dismissing the argument that bull-baiting has a corrupting influence on the character of the spectators by using himself as an instance: he saw two bull-baitings in his youth, he claims, and has not, since, seen any signs of cruelty or corruption. He then gets to the heart of what he thinks is wrong with the legislation by making it an issue of the culture of the common people:

“A great deal has lately been said respecting the state of the poor, and the hardships which they are suffering. But if they are really in the condition which is described, why should we set about to deprive them of the few enjoyments which are left to them? If we look back to the state of the common people in those countries with which our youthful studies make us acquainted, we find, that what with games, shews, festivals and the institutions of their religion, their sources of amusement and relaxation were so numerous as to make them appear to have enjoyed a perpetual holiday… “ Then he imagines what the poor in the country might say to the reformers: “Why interfere with the few sports we have, while you leave yourself and the rich so great a variety? You have your carriage, and your country houses; your balls, your plays, your operas, your masquerades, your card-parties, your books, your dogs, and your horses to amuse you – On yourselves you lay no restraint. – But from us you wish to take the little we have?”

Windham is objecting, as becomes apparent, not just to interference with bull baiting, but to the tendency to regulate the amusements of the poor for their own good. And in so opposing the bill, he speaks up for that countryside culture:

“In the exercise of those sports they may, indeed, sometimes hurt themselves, but could never hurt the nation. If a set of poor men, for vigorous recreation, prefer a game of cudgels, instead of interrupting them, it should be more our business to let them have fair play.”

This is the note of Hazlitt and Cobbett – and not what one might expect from a reactionary. Nor this: ‘The advocates of this bill, Sir, proposed to abolish bull-baiting on the score of cruelty. It is strange enough that such an argument should be employed by a set of persons who have a most vexatious code of laws for the protection of their own amusements. I do not mean at present to condemn the game laws; but when Gentlemen talk of cruelty, I must remind them, that it belongs as much to shooting, as to the sport of bull-baiting; nay more so, as it frequently happens, that where one bird is shot, a great many others go off much wounded. When, therefore, I hear humane Gentlemen even make a boast of having wounded a number of birds in this way, it only affords me a further proof that savage sports do not make savage people. Has not the butcher as much right to demand the exercise of his sport, as the man of fortune to demand that of hunting?”

Move forward, now, to Lafargue, who begins: “The bourgeois have the tenderness of angels in regard to animals: they feel a closer relationship to the animals than they do to the workers.”

Lafargue is not only following, unconsciously, in the path of the Burkian Windham, but in the path of Marx, who, in his list of the paragons of bourgeois humanism in the Communist Manifesto, includes societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals. Lafargue finds it infuriating that an English law allows the police to interfere with a scientist experimenting on an animal, and while allowing companies to experiment on their human clients with products mixed dangerous impurities or the like, all to save a bit of money in production:

“John Simon is an English factory inspector. He has studied the tortures to which the tender hearted bourgeois submits children, women and proletarian men in the capitalist prisons, in order to steal the fruits of their labor. He denounced them with a courage never known to the radicals. In his discourse [to a recent congress], he established that there exists two categories of experiment. One practiced by the physiologist on certain animals. The other practiced on thousands of men by speculators. For an example, he cites the classic experiments of Professor Tiersch on mice in order to discover the mode by which Asiatic cholera propagates, and the popular and well known experiment which was practiced during two cholera epidemics, of 1848-49 and 1853-54 on a half million inhabitants of South London by a certain commercial company who supplied these districts with polluted water.”

However, Lafargue is not only concerned with science – although it is interesting that the a defense of the amusements of the common people has transformed, in the course of the century, into a defense of science. He also uses Windham’s example of bird shooting to indict the bourgeoisie for committing acts of cruelty for their own amusement whilst banning acts that repulsed them among the lower orders.

Only by seeing that the dispute over animals and their treatment has deep roots in the common life, a life that was being transformed all over Europe, can one make one’s way, here. There is a delusion that we can get a clear political guide from understanding the pattern of our semantic binaries. They seem to group themselves before our eyes. We look at the history of the word, person, we see a sort of semiotic equivalent of the theodicy here, we think that we can make sense of the civil wars hidden in the word. We say, look at these oppositions deriving from this word that is originally a simulacra of the face, the face as an exchangeable object. Look at the number of semiotic transformations we can touch upon: of the relationship between the face and the body, the clothed and the naked, the man and the woman,, the elite and the common, the man and the beast. But when we look at how these things are imminently constituted and experienced, we find that things are not as we imagined them to be.

Maurice Angulhon, in “Le sang des bêtes. Le problème de la protection des animaux en France au XIXème siècle”, claimed that, unlike the 20th century, the entire onus of the movement to protect animals from cruelty, especially domestic animals, was aimed at preventing human cruelty. Windham, in fact, is responding to a similar claim in England – the spectacle or practice of cruelty to animals among the working classes will lead to either crime or a dangerous propensity to political rebellion. Surely this is true, to some extent, that the chief organizers for the protection of animals were animated by a “curious mixture of profound humanism and social fear.” For instance, under Napoleon, the traditional way of butchering an animal, which was done in the full view of whoever wanted to watch in Paris, was regulated so that it occurred in special abbatoirs. Just as the ladies wore red sewn into their necklines as a memorial of the guillotine, so, too, this prohibition could be seen as another, more fearful homage to the guillotine: “in dissimulating the blade of the butcher one contributed perhaps to avoiding the blade of the street jury.” (85) Industry and animal husbandry were much more visible, nonetheless, in cities where the flow of traffic was measured by the horse, and where the knacker’s trade in sick and dying horses, which were often sold off and starved to death, flourished.


Here is the famous report from an acquaintance of Nietzsche’s about the events of January 3, 1889 (although whether this happened on January 3 or December 27, 1888 is under some dispute)

“But the high point was the episode of that day on which Davide Fino saw the professor on the Via Po between two policemen, followed by a crowd of circling people. Friederich Nietzsche had, a few minutes before, put his arms about the neck of a taxi-driver’s beaten horse and refused to let him go. He had seen how the coachmen had beat the four legged creature, and had felt such enormous pain, that he had seen himself obliged to offer the beast his dedication.”

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

where I am now


I had a discouraging day yesterday, surveying the supposedly coordinate pieces of The Tears of Homo Economicus and asking myself, where’s the coordination? Jesus. My original idea was simply to carve a small book out of my Human Limit project, but over the last four months I’ve made certain small and major changes in the potential book, all of which are driven by my flinching the stylistic norms native to the humanities, in which thesis, argument and example unroll with the monological inflexibility of an alarm clock going off. I am not that kind of writer. The demon of the lateral is always at my ear.

In the preface to his dissertation, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin compared the nineteenth century compulsion to write within the form of a system to the original energies of the tractate, which, developing at the same time as the mosaic in the West, shared with the mosaic and the stained glass window the same principle of representation: a number of pieces – which congealed, in the tractate’s case, around certain authoritative or sacred citations – were arranged so that their systematic unity only appeared in juxtaposition, which is to say that the unity is extruded onto some external observer. What this means is that the pieces, seen individually and from within, may seem to be little complete bubbles in themselves, little snow globes, but that they are really parts of a grander schema and their meanings are not self contained after all, but partial. The whole meaning supervenes only when the all of the parts are juxtaposed. And all of the parts are juxtaposed when the demon of the lateral ceases to whisper in your ear.

Although cultural historians conventionally ascribe an organic unity to the Middle Ages, in reality, this form of unity-in-pieces is completely mechanical. What I like about the tractate is that it comprehends the essay and the aphorism. It builds not towards the muted shock of the logical conclusion, but instead towards the naked shock of the ‘line’- that is, the quote, the citation, in which ‘proof’ (the prestige of which derives from the institutionalization of truth) is transformed into the beautiful gesture (the prestige of which derives from the anarchy of individual experience). This is the dream of all clerks, all those who sit at desks, all the white collar crowd, all the agents of circulation, whether they admit it, or rather, act on it, or not. It is their clerkly terror and glory.

So I talked to A. about this. She’d been telling me that I should talk to her about what was on my mind.
I said this, approximately. At first, when I was considering this book simply as a sort of mythography following the figure of homo economicus, it seemed simple. I would ask why the term appeared in the 1890s, and then relate it to the turn in economics that was coordinate with the beginning of the consumerist phase of capitalism – which I interpret as the beginning of the modernist distancing from production, on the same order as the distancing from nature. I would point to how this figure, which admittedly describes only a few of the characteristics of any real person, has been used to create policy, and thus imposed as a model on populations that are humanly resistant to it. I would then use the notion of matrixes of exchange to explore the continuing existence of ‘non’ rational forms of exchange, with the idea that these are not non-rational at all, and that the viability of capitalist society depends on the fact that there are a diversity of exchange systems.

But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do something a little more fun. So my second version of this project was to emphasize character formation under capitalism. Returning to the thesis that modernization has occurred under the sign of two removes, I thought I’d use Marx’s notion of the agent of circulation – the clerk, the salesman, the lower white collar employee – as the social niche in which the figure of the homo economicus has the greatest impact and, at the same time, creates the greatest repulsion. The logic of circulation is the logic of demand – which is how the organs of the media originally branch off and become the productive shadow of this segment of the total circulation of commodities. Establishing this link between the agent of media and the agent of circulation is important, as the quantitative character-shaping force of economic man and his counterparts in capitalist society are a result of the quantitatively greater penetration of media into the private life.

Thus, the essays in The Tears of Homo Economicus will cover a great deal of literary and sociological material, bathed in my associations as a reader and dumbfounded citizen of my time, in the service of a relatively small number of theses. Somehow, this should be do-able.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Deviance and the Underground




The discussion of deviance, in the sociology of the Cold War period up to the eighties, was burdened by a vice squad rhetoric and tone, as if the sociologists in question were busy raiding an opium den and kicking the sleepers. Thus, the categories of the academics and the voice-overs in those admonitory films shown in school classrooms to warn young white people against the temptation of various and sundry lurking dangers of the real world, from accepting rides with strangers to sex and drugs, seem retrospectively built out of the same cultural assumptions, under the bulking presence of the same missile system.

Deviance as a sociological concept came out of the 19th century discussion of decadence. Durkheim proposed deviance as a contrast to norms; later, in the 1950s, it was usefully associated with linguistic rituals – both in the way Becker saw how the labeling process works to distinguish the deviant from the ‘non-deviants’ outside of, although not uninfluenced by, the institutional context; and in the rationalizations of the deviant, classified by Matza and Sykes; and it finally fell victim, as a subject in sociology,not only to changing moeurs, which would theoretically simply give us another set of the deviant and the non-deviant, but also to camp. The vocabulary the fieldworkers used to describe the teenage car thief or the marijuana smoker, with its Dragnet cadences, is irresistibly funny, now. It is hard to read, for instance, Howard Becker’s Outsiders, with its search for the one deviant act that begins the career of the deviant (o that fall from grace), without giggling. Even in its time this prose had a period piece flavor. When smoking pot went from an activity practiced by the low life foreigner or the Hollywood blackmailer in a Raymond Chandler novel to one practiced by your average high school kid on the weekend, the subjects captured by deviance – which were always a little ambiguous to begin with, since deviance seems to pulse between crime and weirdness – began their startlingly rapid career of normalization, upending the cops. The camp resonance of the rhetoric employed by the agents of control and their academic minions flowed into the work of writers like Burroughts, Pynchon, and Joe Orton, as well as into underground commix and the prancing beat of rock and the sneers of punk, and in the process part of its seriousness was sacrificed on the altar of stylization, and another part became the basis for a counter-attack, mounted by a left that had learned paranoia the hard way, for the missile wall that protected us had also produced the bomb test and the iodine in the collective thyroid gland. It was style killed the traditional FBI man, and if he still continues to be popular, it is not in the guise of giving the fifth degree to the drug dealer, but as the chaser of UFOs and exotic foreign terrorists, with the new character code demanding that it be his own straightness tht comes into question. Even if deviance retains its terminological privilege in criminology, it has been generally muffled in sociological discourse since the 1970s. Colin Sumner aptly summed up this history in the title of his 1994 book: The Sociology of Deviance: an obituary

However, if the collapse of the sociology of deviance was due to its one-sided blindness to the real social force of style, certain of the classic ideas of the sociology of deviance are still worth rescuing precisely because they predicted this fate – or could be jiggered so as to make it explicable.

I am intrigued myself, as I go after the underground man, by the Sykes and Matza thesis of neutralization. While they were writing about juvenile delinquents in Chicago, Pierre Klossowski was writing about Sade in Paris. The sociologists may seem to inhabit a different realm from the pornographer/philosopher, but in fact neutralization casts light on what Klossowski calls Sade’s philosophy of ‘counter-generalization’.

The Matza and Sykes paper begins by rejecting an idea that, in diffuse form, had gained some currency in the sociology of deviance:

“The basic characteristic of the delinquent subculture, it is argued, is a system of values that represents an inversion of the values held by respectable, law abiding society, the world of the delinquent is the world of the law-abiding turned upside-down and its norms constitute a countervailing force directed against the conforming social order. Cohen sees the process of enveloping a delinquent subculture as a matter of building, maintaining, and reinforcing a code for behaviour which exists by opposition, which stands in point by point contradiction to dominant values, particularly those of the middle class. Cohen’s portrayal of delinquency is executed with a good deal of sophistication, and he carefully avoids overly simple explanations such as those based on the principle of ‘follow the leader’ or easy generalizations about ‘emotional disturbances’. Furthermore, he does not accept the delinquent subculture as something given, but instead systematically examines the function of delinquent values as a viable solution to the lower-class, male child’s problems in the area of social status. Yet in spite of its virtues, this image of juvenile delinquency as a form of behaviour based on competing or countervailing values and norms appears to suffer from a number of serious defects.”

The defects in question stem from a simplifying logic of contradiction. If there is a ‘deviant subculture’, then its norms will be, according to this theory, deviant – they will be the negation of the norms of respectable society – the society of the ‘human product’.

It is here that Klossowski’s interpretation of Sade makes an interesting dialogic partner to this sociological groping around, for in a sense what the sociologists are looking for is what some of the more romantic interpreters of Sade take to be the Sadeian society, which raises the standard of a Satanic revolt against the powers that be. Klossowski, on the other hand, while understanding that romantic moment in Sade, holds fast to Sade’s core Enlightenment belief. It is not Satanism but atheism that drives the Sadeian society. In the Philosopher-Villain, his corrective essay that takes up certain of the errors as he now saw them that populate his earlier book, Sade, my neighbor, Klossowski introduces the useful notion of counter-generality:

“The peculiarly human act of writing presupposes a generality that a singular case claims to join, and by belonging to this generality claims to come to understand itself. Sade as a singular case conceives his art of writing as verifying such belongingness. The medium of generality in Sade’s time is the logically structured language of the classical tradition: in its structure this language reproduces and reconstitutes in the field of communicative gestures the normative structure of the human race in individuals…

With this principle of the normative generality of the human race in mind, Sade sets out to establish a countergenerality that would obtain for the specificity of perversions, making exchange between singular cases of perversion possible. These, in the existing normative generality, are defined by the absense of logical structure. Thus is conceived Sade’s notion of integral monstrosity. Sade takes this countergenerality, valid for the specificity of perversion, to be already implicit in the existing generality. For he thinks that the atheism proclaimed by normative reason, in the name of man’s freedom and sovereignty, is destined to reverse the existing generality into this countergenerality. Atheism, the supreme act of normative reason, is thus destined to establish the reign of the total absence of norms.” [Sade, my neighbor, trans. by Alphonso Lingis, 14-15]

Thus, we have two positions, at least, staked out about deviant or pervert sub-cultures: one in which the pervert sub-culture is in revolt against respectable culture and constructs its own norms while accusing the respectable culture of various hypocrisies and injustices; and one in which the task is to establish, from the supreme act of normative reason, Atheism, the reign of a total absence of norms.

Matza and Sykes take a third position, which is that the deviant sub-culture is held together by an ethos of ‘neutralization’. They reject the idea that the deviant has a consistent philosophy that he follows – rather, they point out that there are a number of respectable people that deviants often admire (they include in this number the ‘mother’ and the ‘priest’, which – for Matza and Sykes – might evoke the Warner brothers films of the thirties, but for me evokes the Sadeian mockery that is directed at just these two figures), and that deviants are not immune to guilt; furthermore, when you listen to what the deviant says when he is caught (that is, for a crime – for again, the deviant in these texts is always becoming a criminal. The idea that the criminal might become the norm, that the respectable might model itself on the deviant, is outside of the ken of the deviant theme), he does not rail against the norms, but rather against his bad luck.

However, man is a creature that needs reasons as much as he needs food. Matza and Sykes suggest that reasons – rationalizations – are needed to actually live as a deviant. But if the deviant is not to make the move of vulgar opposition, nor the Sadeian move of the removal of all norms except that of the death instinct, then he will need some buffer to silence his inner voice:

“Disapproval flowing from internalized norms and conforming others in the social environment is neutralized, turned back, or deflected in advance. Social controls that serve to check or inhibit deviant motivational patterns are rendered inoperative, and the individual is freed to engage in delinquency without serious damage to his self-image. In this sense, the delinquent both has his cake and eats it too, for he remains committed to the dominant normative system and yet so qualifies its imperatives that violations are ‘acceptable’ if not ‘right’.”

This is a fascinating paragraph, for – through the supposed value neutrality of the idea of norms – one receives the impression of a monolithic respectable society that has, indeed, got it right. A society that is so monolithically right that, for instance, there is nothing deviant about said society producing weapons with the power to destroy humanity if it is attacked. At the moment that Matza and Sykes suggest their very useful category scheme, they also produce a moment of neutralization – of style and value – in which one gets a flash of the technocrat working on the human product as the sociological imagination blinks off. Neutralization, I suggest, is not the domesticated genie they take it for, especially if the deviant is not the Other of respectable society, but is rather in a parasitic relationship to the community of human products.

The neutralizations are defined by five cardinal elements, a sociological liturgy:
1. The denial of responsibility In so far as the delinquent can define himself as lacking responsibility for his deviant actions, the disapproval of self or others is simply reduced in effectiveness as a restraining influence.
2. The denial of injury A second major technique of neutralization centres on the injury or harm involved in the delinquent act. The criminal law has long made a distinction between crimes which are mala in se and mala prohibita – that is between acts that are wrong in themselves and acts that are illegal but not immoral – and the delinquent can make the same kind of distinction in evaluating the wrongfulness of his behaviour.
3. The denial of the victim Even if the delinquent accepts the responsibility for his deviant actions and is willing to admit that his deviant actions involve an injury or hurt, the moral indignation of self and others may be neutralized by an insistence that the injury is not wrong in light of the circumstances. The injury, it may be claimed, is not really an injury; rather, it is a form of rightful retaliation or punishment.
4. The condemnation of the condemners A fourth technique of neutralization would appear to involve a condemnation of the condemners or, as McCorkle and Korn have phrased it, a rejection of the rejecters. The delinquent shifts the focus of attention from his own deviant acts to the motives of his violations. His condemners, he may claim, are hypocrites, deviants in disguise, or impelled by personal spite.
5. The appeal to higher loyalties Fifth, and last, internal and external social controls may be neutralized by sacrificing the demands of the larger society for the demands of the smaller social group to which the delinquent belongs such as the sibling pair, the gang, or the friendship clique. It is important to note that the delinquent does not necessarily repudiate the imperatives of the dominant normative system, despite his failure to follow them. Rather, the delinquent may see himself as caught up in a dilemma that must be resolved, unfortunately, at the cost of violating the law.